EDITORIAL: How not to handle 'bad news'

The York Dispatch

Larry Redding is new to the York Suburban School District, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps he was simply misinformed when he penned the column published Nov. 22 in the York Suburban Pride newsletter and was not attempting to deflect attention from the controversy now engulfing the district.

Larry Redding

“It’s unfortunate that a majority of our public media outlets focus on the bad things that happen in society,” the former head of the Gettysburg Area School District wrote.

“When quizzed about this approach, editors are quick to state that bad news gets higher ratings and sells more papers,” he continued. “As readers and consumers of ‘the news,’ we do have a choice — we can dwell on the bad or focus our attention on the positive.”

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First, let’s be clear: We’re not sure which editors he spoke to, but we never received his “quiz.”

Had he asked us, we would have pointed to the local media’s long history of reporting on the many achievements of the York Suburban School District, which is widely regarded as the best in the county and is regularly lauded statewide and even nationally for its academic excellence.

Redding should do a search of our website, where he’ll find plenty of “good news” about Suburban in the archives — stories about top test scores, innovative teaching methods to inspire students, students working to improve their community, graduates making their marks on the world.

In fact, most of those stories are positive simply because that’s usually the type of news that comes out of the district.

But that does not mean The York Dispatch or any other news organization will ignore a controversial story when we become aware of it.

If we did, we wouldn’t be a news organization; we’d be a PR firm. Such things exist, and perhaps the school board would have been wise to hire one.

In this file photo, York Suburban Superintendent Shelly Merkle gives an update on her district during a news conference regarding the Campaign for Fair Education Funding at the York City School administrative building in York City, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

To suggest, as Redding does, that news organizations seek out “bad news” because it “sells” is simply false.

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However, such a story might well generate more interest from our readers, if only because it’s unusual or unexpected — as is the current case that brought Redding out of retirement to serve as Suburban’s interim superintendent.

And it will almost certainly have a longer “shelf life” than normal if elected school board members and administrators refuse to even acknowledge the case, forcing “media outlets” to pry public information from them, piece by piece, through Right-to-Know Law requests.

The incidents involving former Superintendent Michele Merkle, who was charged this week with two counts of criminal mischief, happened on Sept. 11 on school district property and were allegedly caught on the district’s own surveillance system.

Nearly three months later, district officials still refuse to answer questions about the incidents and how they handled them — questions like:

Why didn’t the school board immediately fire Merkle or suspend her pending the outcome of the criminal investigation?

Were there any previous incidents or complaints regarding Merkle? If so, how were they handled by the board?

Were there warnings that were missed?

Are there any changes that could be made to avoid a similar situation in the future?

The public, which elected the school board members and pays the salaries of district employees, deserves answers.

Redding used the rest of his newsletter column to focus on the high-quality educational opportunities York Suburban students have and the many ways they’re excelling.

“Yes, the York Suburban School District has a great story to share and we all need to do our part by providing personal examples of the accomplishments of our students who demonstrate the Culture of Excellence,” he concludes.

Redding is right, of course — but no one is questioning the behavior or judgment of the students. Likewise, the current crisis has nothing to do with the teaching staff.

Don’t drag them into this.

They didn’t do anything wrong, and we have no reason to think they won’t continue to make parents and residents proud.

This is “bad news” for exactly one former superintendent and nine current or former school board members.