Disclaimer: This post evaluates a local media professional’s reporting practices with regard to a story on an area teacher. The teacher who is the subject of the reporting works in the same school district as me; however, I have never met this teacher. This is more a reflection on the disappointing reporting approach and should not be mistaken for my opinion on the teacher’s online comments.

My role as a teacher and media adviser provides me with a unique perspective as local and national media outlets cover educational issues or controversies. This week provided one of those opportunities.

A reporter, Cornelius Hocker, at Valley News Live “broke” a story that a special needs teacher published questionable, vague tweets about students without any discernible identifying factors. I put “broke” in quotes because Mr. Hocker was notified via an anonymous parent complaint, which is an entirely separate, but no less concerning of an issue.

The online public comments for this story (and the reporter’s comments directly to me) are disconcerting. Let me be clear, I’m not taking a position on the morality of the teacher’s social media comments. I take issue with the journalistic approach to this story and what it means for teachers everywhere.

First, let’s examine the journalistic approach. The reporter selected only tweets that fit the narrative for his story. He did not review the district policy or the teacher’s personnel file before publishing the story. (NOTE: He told me later that the policy was added to the online version of the story – incidentally after I linked it in the comments section online) He makes no mention in the story of trying to reach out to the teacher or even if the district has a comment. He simply says that “We reached out to WFPS; We made them aware of the situation.”

We all know that social media comments are public, even with private accounts. However, if comments are pulled out of context it could place a more negative light on the subject. Were there any posts that praised students?  The four published tweets Mr. Hocker focused on were published within a six month time period. For instance, this is another social media post from that same teacher:

Failure to provide context for the published tweets seems like an almost intentional attempt to shed as negative a light as possible on this individual. In fact, the reporter uses the fact that the teacher shut down the account as justification for the story.

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This contradicts all ethical considerations for professional journalists. The most important guideline, especially when dealing with private individuals, is the concept that journalists should minimize harm. This concept focuses on the idea that journalists should treat subjects, sources, colleagues and the public as people deserving of respect. It’s clear in the lack of research and context provided here, the reporter chose to sidestep this ethical standard. This single tweet from Mr. Hocker harshly critiquing the subject of his story shows his inability to meet this standard.

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As a former media professional and current adviser to incoming journalists, I would hope community members would hold our media professionals to a higher standard.

In fact, if we take Mr. Hocker’s reporting approach and apply it to his own social media presence, we may find his official VNL (Valley News Live) Twitter account may violate his own company’s policy. Valley News Live is owned by Gray Television. In their handbook, they explain the importance of remaining objective with regard to partisan politics. It states:

“Gray’s image as a neutral and objective news organization is an indispensable journalistic attribute. The Company therefore expects that all employees will keep their personal political interests and affiliation separate and distinct from their employment with Gray and its affiliated stations. In addition, everyone involved in the production of news or editorial content must avoid situations that might be seen as compromising the integrity and impartiality that the employee, the employee’s news team, Gray’s stations, and Gray must maintain.”

For background, Mr. Hocker’s own blog, which appears to be from college, sheds some light on his political affiliation. Regarding a Fox news commentary program he states “I will never watch Fox News again.” Regarding the 2012 debates and former President Barack Obama he states, “My candidate, and President, misspoke on a few topics, but there is a difference between mixing up facts and completely changing your platform. I’m happy with how my President handled himself and I’m looking forward to the upcoming debates”

As a private blog from prior to his employment with Gray Television, these comments would not necessarily fall under the handbook guidelines. However, looking at Mr. Hocker’s official VNL Twitter timeline, partisan politics seems to appear

 

Mr. Hocker’s political allegiance is pretty clear through these messages from his professional VNL account. Whether it violates the Gray Television policy is not for me to decide, but a professional reporter overtly providing partisan opinions from a professional account should be concerning.

This apparent bias is especially concerning in the situation involving a public school employee. It is difficult to see this reporting as anything other than commentary when considering the reporter’s professional bias and lack of journalistic decency. This becomes even more disheartening considering the reporting stemmed from a single, anonymous, parent complaint.

As a public school teacher who interacts with hundreds of students each year and who has dealt with my share of parental concerns, I would hope professional media members would dig a little deeper before shedding a negative light on another professional. At a time when society is reevaluating effective reporting and public schools are under attack, there needs to be a higher ethical standard for which we all strive to achieve.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

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