Let's talk about religion and schools.
Or, more precisely, let's talk about the making of a story about youth ministers being told not to visit children in their ministries during school lunch.
There are a lot of people talking about the role of the newspaper and the role of the school district in blog posts and social media sites. That includes this Facebook status update by Jeff Standridge, who is a source in the story. (I've attached a screen shot of it to this post.)
He is not the only person concerned about the situation or the reporting on it, but I cannot respond on his Facebook, so I'm addressing as many issues as possible here, in my own blog.
Here's the lowdown.
On Tuesday night, Courtney Spradlin, a fellow reporter, and I discovered though online sources that youth ministers and superintendent Greg Murry planned a meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
I always care what is happening at any of the schools. I've attended parent-teacher meetings. I've repeatedly sent messages to parents asking for comments too. And, as a reporter, I'm never "off." So, I immediately texted Dr. Murry to ask if I could go to the meeting, which I thought might be about school prayer.
"It is not an open meeting," Dr. Murry wrote.
I asked why not make it open, but he didn't reply. At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, I called Dr. Murry and he explained the meeting is not open to the press and that it was about what youth ministers could do on campuses. He said he wouldn't be talking about the meeting but suggested ministers might.
The meeting held at 10 a.m. Tuesday was not an open meeting, by that I mean it was not open to the press. The public/press was not invited. No matter what Mr. Standridge or others say, when a reporter asks to go and is told "no" then the meeting is "closed."
The closed meeting did not violate FOI because elected officials did not attend. Essentially, this was a private meeting between private individuals and Dr. Murry, who also is not an elected official.
My dander isn't particularly riled by this meeting being closed. Here's why: Sometimes officials (not elected) need to talk to parents or individuals without the limelight. Once I know what to ask, Dr. Murry has always been forthright. And, I believed the ministers, including Mr. Standridge in our story, would say what happened in the meeting.
Besides the meeting, others are questioning terms used in the story, like the word "bar." The term bar, used in the headline for space considerations, is not a poor choice. Defined, it means "to forbid (an activity)" or "to prevent or forbid the entrance or movement of," according to my lovely desktop dictionary. For example, some people are now "prevented" from visiting schoolchildren during lunch.
One other concern is about details left out of stories. It's difficult to have every voice in a news story. We try to narrow down issues to what we think people care about the most. In this case, we spoke with school officials, ministers, the foundation's attorney and attempted to contact parents before we ever wrote a word. We didn't post everything we had right away because we wanted to be right and fair.
Honestly, I'm surprised Mr. Standridge would write such a negative post about the story. The reporter interviewed Mr. Standridge and Director Anderson Wilkens, and then provided Wilkens with their quotes that she planned to use. It was our understanding both Wilkens and Standridge would look at the quotes. In any event, Mr. Wilkens knew exactly what would be in the article.
And, important facts were included in the story. Readers can tell by the quotes that Conway K-Life supports the school district. In fact, the reporter used the quote by Wilkins that what the school is doing is "in the best interest of the students and families, and within the legal constraints that a public school is up against."
We did our best to talk to as many people involved as possible and give as many people a voice. We had to cut some because this issue could become book length. And, I'm sure, there will be follow-up stories.
I realize that no one will be satisfied with this blog. Reporters are easy to blame, even when no one points out a specific incorrect fact. But really, the story isn't about us. And, it's not about Mr. Standridge either.
Out of everyone with whom we spoke, I really think Dr. Murry summed up what's going on at the district the best:
“We certainly want the community to know that we are wanting to make sure that whatever activities that are allowed at the school are legal for us to do and that’s really what all this is about,” Murry said. “We’re not trying to kick anybody out of the school, or an organization out of the school. Whatever we do, we have to make sure we are on the correct side of the law.”