Should I talk to the media about a high school Gay Straight Alliance club?
September 10, 2005 3:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm the faculty advisor for a Gay-Straight Alliance club that has just started at the local high school. Some members of the community are very upset about it. The newspaper has contacted me and wants to do a story on the club and the reaction. Should I talk to the newspaper?

My suburban/exurban public high school recently started a Gay-Straight Alliance. The students started it to promote tolerance and awareness, fight harassment and offer a welcoming environment for all students. However, some parents in the community feel it is inappropriate and would promote homosexuality / the gay agenda in schools.

These parents have been fairly vocal about their unhappiness with the school administration (from the assistant principals on up to the district / school board level). The local paper caught wind of it and wants to do a story on the club and the reaction.

Our school is in a fairly conservative part of town, but we are not the only school in the area with one of these clubs. The school is pretty much legally obligated to allow the club if student interest warrants it. The school is not trying to shut the club down and expects it to follow the same rules as any other club on campus. The concerned citizens want to shut it down before it gets started.

I have offered no comment to the newspaper and would like to keep the media out of what is primarily an internal school issue. Others have urged me to talk otherwise "my side" of the story won't get told and the club will look like it's trying to hide something.

I really don't want to participate in a public argument because as far as I'm concerned the point is moot. They've expressed their displeasure and its been noted, but they can't force the club out.

I have enough work to do as it is just teaching and don't need the extra hassle of dealing with media requests about a small club, but I don't want to do the kids a disservice by refusing to talk about it. Any suggestions?
posted by anonymous to Education (19 answers total)
If it is a student group to "promote tolerance and awareness," then it seems to me that you have an opportunity to further the group's goals. Why don't you talk to the students and see how they feel? Also, maybe one of them would rather be spokesperson. It is their group, after all. Right?
posted by mds35 at 4:18 AM on September 10, 2005

Contact GLSEN. They have a ton of experience with settting up GSAs, and should be able to advise/support you through it.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 4:29 AM on September 10, 2005

For your own protection and job security, you should consult with your principal, the public information office and possibly the school district counsel before you say anything on the record. They may prefer to have a district statement instead of/in addition to your comments.
posted by SashaPT at 4:37 AM on September 10, 2005

What would you hope to achieve by talking to the newspaper? Almost all minds will be already made up and talking to a newspaper will only escalate the issue. Silent resolve speaks for itself.
posted by nthdegx at 5:53 AM on September 10, 2005

Do contact GLSEN! Another reason for you to talk to the newspaper is that kids who have been too shy to attend the group so far might be inspired to be bolder.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:05 AM on September 10, 2005

What nthdegx said. Newspapers only exist to increase their own circulation, so your carefully-worded interview will be mercilessly edited for quotes out of context.
posted by scruss at 6:22 AM on September 10, 2005

If you can show that the parents are being logically irrational and that you are all quite the nice people, and make *sure* the story doesn't have a slant, then you should talk to the proper people, and then I think the newspaper. The worst thing that could possibly happen is a big misunderstanding with belligerent blowhard parents winning ;/

Like a previous poster said, your quotes and such will be butchered, however, which is why I think you should absoltuely make sure, maybe even secure legal protection, to make sure they don't misconstrue your words.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 6:26 AM on September 10, 2005

I would only talk to the paper if they agree to give you final veto on the edited piece. Which they almost certainly won't. I've had dealings with those bastards myself and they do, and will, slice and dice your words mercilessly. I was interviewed for something very trivial and uncontroversial and I still cringed when I read how they'd edited my words and quoted me out of context. On a topic like this their aim will be to generate controversy and irate letters, be very sure of that.

As an aside, I really wish I could find out what this "gay agenda" is. I hear so much talk about it but I can never seem to figure out exactly what it entails.
posted by Decani at 7:23 AM on September 10, 2005

Others have urged me to talk otherwise "my side" of the story won't get told and the club will look like it's trying to hide something.

As a former journalist, let me tell you: the debate lasts longer if you speak. First there's your story. Then, over subsequent issues of the paper, there are the letters to the editor, the editorials, stories about similar debates going in other towns, comments from national leaders (or "national" "leaders") and the follow-up stories where homophobes and nutjobs are interviewed, and think pieces where some local jerkbag commentator talks about What It All Means. And then a competing paper (maybe the "Good News" Christian weekly, maybe not) takes an opposing point of view because they want to differentiate themselves from their competitor, and maybe the wires pick it up and maybe TV does, too.

Then they all come back to you—the one reporter becomes many—for more comment and you feel obligated because all these lies, accusations, and wrong-headed statements that have come out since you first went on the record are going mostly unchallenged and you feel like the only way the truth will get out is if you yourself tell it. And the cycle continues.

So, no, I would not recommend speaking to the press. It only stretches out the debate. A) Everybody knows your side without you having to speak up: you're supporting the students. B) You are hiding something: you're hiding your students from an unnecessary and undue shitstorm. If you speak, you engage the opponents on their grounds where they've set the rules. You cannot control the debate. Let the complaints get stalled in the bureaucratic mire of the school administration and lawyers and it will be shorter, quieter, and easier on you and your kids. Then you and your students can begin the work the club is intended to pursue: the reasonable outreach to the uncertain and the unsteady who need support, guidance, and understanding.

In short, look inward to your people, not outward to strangers. Good luck.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:30 AM on September 10, 2005

As a media person, I know more than a little about what you're facing. A few points:

1. If there is going to be a story, there is nothing you can do to stop it. The only question is whether you will try to ensure that it includes what you would consider a sane viewpoint, along with the inevitable "Ohmigod they are trying to give my kids teh ghey" from the outraged parents.

In other words, do you want the locals who want to kill this thing to be the only voices in the story?

2. However, you are apparently a district employee. I'd guess you are bound by certain rules governing talking to the press. Check with supervisors, and if they say don't talk to the reporter, you'd have to decide how important your job status is to you.

3. If your boss says it's OK, I'd talk to the reporter. The alternative is publicly refusing to discuss the matter -- "no comment" -- and is that really better? Or does it make it look like you're scared to even discuss it in decent company?

4. It's true that you cannot control the context that your comments are presented in. No responsible newspaper will gived you veto power over a written story.

5. But: Most responsible reporters will agree to review of anything attributed to you as a condition of participation in their story.

That is, you call the reporter back and say, "I'd be happy to answer your questions, on one condition. That before you send the story to your editor, you call me back, and read to me anything attributed to me, in quotes or paraphrases, so I can make sure you properly transcribed my comments."

6. If the reporter does not (or cannot, because of newspaper policy) agree to those terms, then perhaps you can agree to an interview by email, if you'd like. At least that way both sides will have a record of precisely what was said. If there's any question later, you can provide copies to any appropriate parties.

7. If interviewed, THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK. Prepare a written statement and read parts of it off if you like. If the reporter reads back something you said, and upon reflection you decide there might have been a more tactful way to say it, you might be stuck with the initial version, because those were the ground rules.

8. If you're concerned about being misquoted, you have certain safeguards you can take, besides the email interview. You might ask the reporter if he minds you recording your conversation, so everyone has the same record of what was said. (If you live in a "one-party consent" state (such as NY) you are legally entitled to tape any conversation you are a participant in, without notification to, or the permission of, the other party.)

Just in case there's a question later about what exactly was said.

9. The reporter might well be sympathetic to your cause, as reporters tend to be younger these days. Unless your newspaper has a well-founded reputation for skewing the content of its news reports, the presumption that it's looking to make the alliance club look bad might not be founded.

10. But you'd know the local history on that; if the paper's editorials bash gay rights issues the reporter's supervisor might feel that the story has to have a certain slant. But any defender of the alliance should at least be quoted. If not you, who will speak up for the alliance?
posted by sacre_bleu at 8:31 AM on September 10, 2005

I have a lot of respect for Mo, and he's got some valid points. The "avoiding media snowballing" analysis makes a lot of sense in a larger metro market, where there are layers of local and regional medias that would escalate this thing. But the "let it get lost in the bureaucracy and lawyers" tactic depends on a certain level of due process, observance of student civil rights, and other legal niceties by the school administration.

My experience is more on a rural level, where the superintendent and school board doesn't really have a bureaucratic mire, and no one wants to hire a lawyer because they're too expensive.

In a small-town setting, the public "argument" is more important, IMHO, because all it takes is one phone call to shut your alliance down. I would submit that in a small town, if stories come out without anyone sticking up for the program, the superintendent (depending on his or her character) is much more likely to decide that the club is inappropriate, or just a pain in the ass, and in the absense of any push-back from club supporters, summarily dispatch it.

Good luck.
posted by sacre_bleu at 8:45 AM on September 10, 2005

[lots of good advice here for handling the media in general -- thanks.]
posted by footnote at 8:54 AM on September 10, 2005

I wouldn't.

It is, as you note, an extra hassle above and beyond the call of your actual duties. And, you have something to lose (your job, directly or indirectly) if you inadvertantly piss off some local potentate or PTA member or whatever.

Frankly, I think it's your prinicpal's job to take this sort of probably-combative interview so that you don't have to. Or perhaps the parents of one of the club's officers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:56 AM on September 10, 2005

If you do talk, limit your comments to 1-2 key points you want to make. "The club does not promote homosexuality. Gay people are present in our school, and we cannot expect them to become invisible." Then don't say another word. A long interview touching on different aspects of the story just gives the reporter more opportunities to take things out of context. The suggested email interview may give you maximum control. The reporter needs a quote from you, and if he or she only has one from which to choose, you are in control.
posted by LarryC at 2:28 PM on September 10, 2005

LarryC's point is good. Robert MacNamara said in The Fog of War that the key to talking to reporters is to answer the question that you wish they would have asked you. As a student of linguistics and discourse analysis, I can tell you that that's exactly what we find skilled political speakers doing.
posted by heatherann at 5:09 PM on September 10, 2005

unless they're going to be giving any quotes from you a healthy amount of real estate, you might want to pass. keep in mind that half the time a reporter calls, they're not doing you a favour - they're hoping you'll do them a favour by giving them a few sentences to please their editor.

that said though it really depends on why the reporter is doing this. if they were just put on assignment and don't care either way, then definitely take a pass. but if the reporter seems to care about the issue (and cares in the same way you do), maybe take a chance on them doing something useful with your words.

there's nothing wrong with asking reporters questions as well. and i second LarryC's advice to answer the questions you wish they'd asked, if you do go ahead with it.
posted by poweredbybeard at 8:01 PM on September 10, 2005

What SashaPT said. I personally feel that you shouldn't talk to the media, but if you must you should talk to your principal first (no need to go higher up; he or she will do that if necessary). It sounds as though this is already a controversial thing, and in order for this club to thrive you should really get administrators on your side.
posted by the_bone at 8:51 PM on September 10, 2005

1. As a former high school teacher who was openly gay at school and as a former full-time journalist, I strongly second the motion that you contact GLSEN. You should also consider contacting GLSEN. Oh, and be sure to contact a group called GLSEN. They'll have lots of useful advice and questions to help you clarify the issues here.

2. You definitely need to talk to your boss before talking to the press.

3. Are their parents of pro-gay kids who'd be willing to speak to the press? Or the kids themselves? As a faculty advisor, your role is at least as much - if not more - about empowering the kids to fight their own battles as it is to stand in their place and fight the battle for them. If the kids and/or their parents are ready, let them do the talking. I think it's fair to consider your job here an internal school one.

4. Avoiding all media is nice advice for many situations, but it may not be ideal for this one. Enforced silence has been a terribly effective weapon in the anti-gay arsenal; two of the most effective counter-weapons we have are telling our own stories and the simple demand for basic fairness. Staying quiet doesn't help the group put a human face to g/l/b/t issues, and may play into your opponents' hands.

5. LarryC's absolutely correct: in general, the key to talking to reporters is to keep your message simple. The more you give the reporter and his/her editor (who wasn't there but will free to drastically alter the context of your quotes anyway), the more likely it is that you'll be surprised at what they do with it. Give them just 1-2 quotes and your message has a much better chance.

6. REFUSE TO RISE TO REPORTERS' BAIT BEYOND YOUR 1-2 POINTS. It serves their interests to increase conflict, but not yours. "Gay and lesbian students are allowed the same freedom of association that other students are allowed. There's a reason the school is legally obligated to allow this kind of club: It's the right thing to do." seems like a good all-purpose quote to use. But definitely CONTACT GLSEN.
posted by mediareport at 9:38 PM on September 10, 2005

It serves their interests to increase conflict, but not yours.

Very important point to remember. Especially since you already know that the article is partly about the upset reaction. I doubt you should talk to them.
posted by Aknaton at 10:52 PM on September 10, 2005

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