School board should protect media access | Editorial

Top: A media relations directive sent by Communications Director Robyn Chastain to school administrators and principals. Bottom: Chastain
Top: A media relations directive sent by Communications Director Robyn Chastain to school administrators and principals. Bottom: Chastain's directive conflicts with the Public Information procedures adopted by the school board, and available on the school district website, www.nkschools.org (Under Contact Us / School Board / Policies / Public Information).
— image credit: Herald

What do the following stories have in common?: “Grant helps expand tribal history study in middle schools” ... “13 Japanese students visit NK for two weeks” ... “Students create tiles for restroom remodel.”

They are recent education stories. And according to North Kitsap School District superintendent's policy, the Herald should have gone through Communications Director Robyn Chastain before reporting them.

The Herald has met twice with Chastain and Superintendent Rick Jones to discuss the policy.  The first meeting was scheduled after the Herald was prevented from interviewing visiting Japanese students. Kingston High School students were taking tests; prevented from meeting the visitors, the Herald tried unsuccessfully to contact the principal so arrangements could be made to meet the students at another time. We finally got to report on the students’ visit, shortly before deadline.

A message sent by Chastain to principals and administrators the day after the first Herald meeting spells out the policy:

“Please remind your staff at your next meeting, that all requests from media need to be redirected to the Communications Department,” she wrote. “We have a new editor at the North Kitsap Herald that has indicated his preference to contact staff directly without coordinating with the Communications Department first. Dr. Jones and I have met with the editor to discuss his concerns and explain our procedures around the handling of media requests. We have scheduled another meeting with him to continue the discussion. This means that you will most likely need to redirect him when he calls or shows up in person at your school or department.”

Likewise, coaches are advised in the “Coaches Guide to Media” provided by the communications office that they are not to comment on “controversial or sensitive topics such as school district policies, funding/budget, student discipline/suspensions, staffing, and athletic offerings,” but are to “refer the reporter to the school Athletic Coordinator or District’s Director of Communications.”

This policy is a threat to press freedom, because it puts control of public information in the hands of one or two individuals — in this case, the superintendent and the communications director. It puts the superintendent and the communications director in a position where they can be roadblocks between a reporter and a source if the reporter is working on a story that may be controversial. The policy could discourage employees from discussing issues with the media for fear of reprisal.

Several North Kitsap School Board members oppose Jones and Chastain’s policy of restricting media access, with Ed Strickland the most vehement.

Jones and Chastain seem to want to find a middle ground. Jones said he doesn’t want to be a roadblock between media and sources. Chastain said coaches can talk to the media “anytime they want.” But they’re not yielding on their policy that reporters have to go through their office first. We won’t do that, but we have no problem calling them when we need to check information.

Our view: The free flow of information and opinion is necessary for an engaged, informed constituency. The school board should abolish this policy and protect media access.

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