From The Editor - Learning to revel in the media snowstorm

25th January 2013 at 00:00

For most people, the stuff that fell from the sky in alarming amounts last week gave them a chance to build snowmen or swear at train companies. For the media, it was a test of virility. Were schools man enough not to panic at the first sight of a snowflake?

Many of you, it seems, were not. While heads were weighing up the pros and cons of keeping schools open with a skeleton staff and playgrounds that resembled a scene from The Day After Tomorrow, the media had decided that failure to open was simply sissy. According to them, your chief role is to babysit the children of working parents. So where was your Scott of the Antarctic spirit? Where was your sense of duty? Where were your snow ploughs?

Snow: an ordinary occurrence that demonstrates very clearly the chasm that exists between the media and schools. The former have no inkling of the daily pressures that schools face. But do teachers really know what motivates journalists? And do they care?

Well, they should: whether schools like it or not, they are always going to be of interest to the press. And as more schools become autonomous, unshielded by the umbrella of a local authority, so they will be left alone to face potential media storms.

Those school stories of legend - the cancelled Christmases, the banned Mother's Day cards and the children forbidden to play conkers without wearing safety goggles - started as local trivia before being transformed out of all recognition by a media interested in headlines, not fairness (see pages 28-32).

Most teachers will find that deplorable. But why should the press dutifully report schools' exam successes, hockey triumphs or peerless performances of The Importance of Being Earnest? Do you, as consumers, sit there lapping up endless stories of other people's good fortune? Or is your attention drawn to absurdity, disaster, crises and wardrobe malfunctions? Good news does not sell. Yours won't either. So do not be surprised if journalists focus on the negative to the exclusion of all else.

Faced with unwanted media attention what can schools do? At the national level, very little. Batten down the hatches, communicate with staff and parents but don't feel obliged to talk publicly. The storm will blow over and occasionally it can soak those who started it. When the tabloids tried to rubbish the comprehensive star of Educating Essex, they were slapped down by outraged readers. Press myths are occasionally punctured by public reality.

Schools have more leverage locally. A good working relationship with a local newspaper can pay dividends if it all goes pear-shaped. And as the local press is usually desperate for stories, they are much more likely to report on school successes as well as failures.

The media are not going to go away. And not everything they produce can be dismissed as tawdry mischief. Aside from nativity nonsense, they also expose the cheating, nepotism and fraud resorted to by a few bad schools. They provide a measure of accountability, albeit a flawed one.

So remain wary, fume at the injustices and sigh at the inanities. But don't let disdain stop you developing a media strategy. One day, you will need one.

gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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