The Fourth Estate and public relations (a throwback)

On Sunday, January 12, 2014, the Ruston Daily Leader printed a letter to the editor I wrote in response to an article in the paper three days prior. They ran it under the title “Heating a genuine concern.

My younger brother was, at the time, in 8th grade at the laboratory school. I texted him what was said in the original article. To put it briefly, my brother said he was in several layers of clothing to stay warm indoors and the quotes in the article were not truthful. Here is my letter:

Regarding the Thursday, January 9 story “GSU: Lab Schools do have heaters“, I would like to respond to the comments of Will Sutton, Director of Public Relations at Grambling State University – since his statements taken verbatim from the comments section of the KNOE website comprised the majority of the article. Mr. Sutton said, “there are only two classrooms that have heat issues.” Yet the school purchased twelve space heaters – six for each school – to use in the classrooms and hallways. It’s puzzling how the schools did not have heat issues in the majority of them but bought these heaters to use in the classrooms and “colder than normal” hallways. And what was the reason given for the hallways being colder than normal? The article neither asks nor tells us. How cold was “colder than normal”? The article neither asks nor tells us. We know the weather outside got into the teens, 20s, and 30s (highs of 31 and 37 Monday and Tuesday) during the first part of the week. Mr. Sutton himself – in a nice tangent that told us nothing about conditions inside the lab schools or the welfare of students in classes – detailed himself how harsh the weather has been all over the country. So that might give us some clues as to how to begin to answer these unasked questions.

According to the National Department of Energy, “Small space heaters are typically used when the main heating system is inadequate or when central heating is too costly to install or operate. In some cases, small space heaters can be less expensive to use if you only want to heat one room or supplement inadequate heating in one room.” So were the main heating systems at Grambling High School and Grambling Middle Magnet inadequate? Were they “too costly” to run? Something else? Again, the article neither asks these (and other) questions nor gives us the answers directly. One thing we do know from YOUR statements, Mr. Sutton, is these space heaters were not used to heat just one room; at least two rooms and entire hallways were to be heated with these by your confession. That’s a lot of open space to cover – even for half a dozen heaters per school.

The article summarized Mr. Sutton’s assessment of the student’s email about conditions at the schools as “overinflated.” Maybe it is the administration’s estimation of their service to the students that has been overinflated. Maybe we should dig deeper and not just take Mr. Sutton’s word for it they’ve got this handled, especially when something so valuable is at stake.

I will give credit to Mr. Sutton that the university and lab schools are in need of financial support and help with facilities issues. Our schools continue to deal with cuts that challenge their ability to serve their purpose. It shortchanges the kids and the public as whole because we would all benefit from them getting the best education possible in an environment conducive to that end. That is a genuine concern. Since you are asking for donations, Mr. Sutton, part of your job as Director of Public Relations should be to assure stakeholders support they offer will be used to the best to serve the students’ needs. Right now, I’m not even confident you and the administration know what those needs are, let alone how to meet them. Show us otherwise, please.

I hope the next time someone runs an article of your online comments it will be because you did show us otherwise and we will be saluting your great work. And I look forward our Fourth Estate investigating and updating us on this progress, as there is so much at stake.

Joi Chadwick

I didn’t take issue with Will Sutton saying “we have faced a 56 percent reduction in our state funding in recent years and there are many unmet needs” and soliciting funds for the schools. The lab schools and university had been struggling financially for years due to state cuts to higher education, and the lab schools faced closure due to the strain on the university budget. (This issue was resolved when the three lab schools converted to one K-12 public charter school operated by the Grambling High Foundation – Lincoln Preparatory School – beginning with the 2016-17 school year.)

I took issue with Sutton’s dubious responses to concerns about children’s (admittedly, including my brother) health and safety. I took issue with the article running unchallenged quotes from Sutton and not contextualizing his claims. I took issue with not seeing a demarcation between the journalism and the PR.

Journalist and media critic Eric Alterman called the relationship between journalism and public relations a “dance” that “requires prudence and diligence on the part of the journalist.” That prudence involves interrogating the information presented to figure out how much of it is true and how much of the truth it is. The diligence involves constant evaluation that labor in journalism is serving the public welfare and not merely acting as a public relations appendage for people in positions of power.

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