"What's interesting to me about the news is that it's always the same!" says Pittsburgh Public Schools spokesperson Pat Crawford. "You get a little bit of weather, a little bit of traffic, the disasters, and you might get the results of a [school] board meeting if you send them a news release so they don't have to come out."
So why did Crawford convince the school board to pay up to $1,000 to consultants J. Wine and Associates to tape and document every mention of the city schools on the local broadcast news (and other education-related programming) in 2004?
"Public perception, unfortunately, is a direct result of what's on TV," Crawford says. If your only images of city schools were what you saw on TV, she says, you might have an unduly negative opinion of them.
Crawford says she's most concerned about the many city and suburban viewers with no connection to the district. Eighty-three percent of city households don't have students in the city schools; most of these families have no school-age children. And two-thirds of county residents don't live in the city at all. "We're in an era where competition for students is getting tougher," Crawford says. "We don't want people to write off our district until they see for themselves what we have to offer."
Among TV's worst offenses, she says, is a tendency to cover incidents but not issues - student fights, for example. "If they'd spend a little more time interviewing [school police] Chief Bob Fadzen about school safety, ... that would be more valuable than turning the camera on a couple of kids fighting and saying, 'Things got out of hand today ...'"
Lately, though, she adds wryly, the fracas involving a South Allegheny school board member, who allegedly struck the school police chief with her car after he arrested her husband on charges that were later dropped, has provided much better material than has Pittsburgh.
From the news segments and story summaries, as well as a compilation of the number of seconds in the segment and any "soundbites" provided by district interviewees, Crawford hopes PPS staff can see how their own perception -- that they often look bad on TV -- squares with reality. : "Don't be afraid of it," Crawford says of staffers approached by television cameras. "Just talk softly into it."