Chris Basinger

07B:285 School and Community Relationships

Community Power Structure Analysis:  Media Survey



            As a small county in southern Iowa, Lucas County has only one media outlet—the local newspaper.  A short delving into its history reveals that there were once two papers:  The Chariton Herald and The Chariton Patriot (two papers run by fierce journalistic rivals).  Eventually, one outdid the other and they merged to become the Chariton Herald-Patriot.  At some point, another local with journalistic aspirations took up pen and press to create the Chariton Leader, a new rival for the Herald-Patriot.  Either the publishers grew bored and sold the operations or they died, and the two were acquired under a new merger.  This new publisher must have decided that the Chariton Herald-Patriot-Leader would be a ridiculously long name and chose to print each under its original name on different days of the week.  To new residents, it seems as though Chariton still has two papers, but upon finding the offices and purchasing a subscription for thirty-five dollars a year, people find that they will receive the Herald-Patriot on Tuesday and the Leader on Thursday.

            The paper is currently published by a conservative that lives and publishes another paper in a town half an hour to the east.  This publisher cares more about spreading propaganda through editorials than about the journalistic integrity of the paper.  The best uses I have found have been to see what the local law enforcement has been up to (getting bats out of houses and arresting unnamed minors) and as a what-not-to-do tool in journalism classes I teach.

            No matter the quality of the paper, it is still a good source to use when analyzing the power structure of the school community.  Athletic news dominates ninety percent of school related issues; other items like Spanish Club trips to Europe or FFA fruit sales get another five to seven percent.  Most of the rest are transcript-like “stories” relating monthly board meetings.  Once in a while these stories uncover an issue large enough to warrant ongoing coverage.  The biggest issue in the past year began last December after a committee was formed to attempt to pass a bond issue for a remodeling of the high school, but the conflict about tax money began a hear and a half before.

            Two years ago, the paper ran a story from a school board meeting about the finances of the school.  Up until that November, the school had been in good shape monetarily, yearly budgets were easily balanced and new students were moving in.  But then something happened.  Auditors found mistakes—the district had been paying health care benefits for dead employees.  The amount the district was spending on salaries was going to run it into the red.  The only resolution to the crisis presented by the superintendent was the freeze all school spending and cut positions at the end of the year.  This was the extent of the coverage provided by the newspaper.  A single article in a single paper.  The only people interviewed for the story were the superintendent and board president.    

            The school finances issue lead directly into the next conflict.  At about the same time that the finance story appeared, the district began looking into options for the high school, a school built originally in 1923 with an addition completed in 1956.  The newspaper followed all of the “building facilities advisory” committee meetings and represented many sides of the issue through the direct quotes of people who spoke out during the meetings.  An independent architectural firm had been hired to investigate the needs of the district and to draw up plans.  A feasibility study concluded that building a new school was completely out of the question; our tax base couldn’t handle the costs.  In the end, three different plans were drawn up for the renovation of the building.  At the meeting these plans were presented, some local opposition posed questions about the necessity of renovation.  Most of those opposed believed that the high school was fine when they went to school twenty to forty years ago, and that it should still be just as fine today.  Others held a high value in tradition and did not want to see some architectural elements removed.  One, a young, local business owner, suggested that the school did not need an elevator and was quoted as asking, “Why don’t we get some big guys from the football team to help carry people in wheel chairs up the stairs when the chair lift isn’t working?”  He believed that it was everyone’s job to look out for those who needed help.  No official decisions wound up being made at this meeting.  Nothing was reported in the paper on the subject for another year.

            It was the following year that the debate over what to do with the high school heated up in the local paper.  A committee of volunteers formed to move forward on plans to remodel the high school and the local paper reported their meetings.  The committee, made up of the superintendent, high school principal, a teacher, the guidance secretary, an employee of the Hy-Vee distribution center, and a retiree.  These meetings were open to anyone in the public who wanted to join, but it is these same six individuals who have been present to all of the reported meetings.  Every meeting has also included one of two school board members, but they have not participated in all.  Meetings were held once a month early on and the members invited the architects back to choose one of three possibilities for the remodel.  The group reached consensus on the plan and decided to collect donations for creating brochures that they would distribute at home basketball games and at local businesses.  They also decided to begin their own media campaign.  In February the paper began running weekly letters written by committee members attempting to persuade residents to vote yes to raise taxes and yes to renovate the school. 

            These letters spawned a new group, formed by a husband and wife that were opposed to the idea of renovation.  This opposition was mainly concerned with the raise in taxes.  They also believed that the school district had failed to prove they knew how to manage taxpayer dollars with the recent audit report.

            The final report on the issue came in March when the vote was cast and the issue was defeated by a narrow margin of two percent.

            The newspaper did not do an adequate job of reporting either the issue of financial crisis or the renovation.  All information for the stories comes only from transcript style reports that do no digging into the real issues.  The reporter quotes people from what they said at meetings, but fails to ask meaningful questions afterward.  The letters to the editor offer a better glimpse of those involved, but it’s only those who care enough to pay the postage to offer their opinion.  Because of this, one can only assume from the reports that the winners are those against renovation and the losers are those for it.  The paper failed to mention that this is an ongoing issue and that the committee continues to meet and has planned for a new vote in early December. 

            The final issue that has been reported by the school is a recent concern from the last board meeting.  Again in transcript style, the meeting was reported by items discussed under the headline “1st Quarter Fs up at CHS.”  The number of failing grades at this time of year (the first midterm of the first quarter) had increased compared to last year.  The numbers did seem staggering, but once you made it to the end of the story (15 pages back) the actual number of students receiving failing grades did not raise that much, it was the number of students receiving failing grades in multiple classes.  Principal Seney reported that most teachers attribute the high number of failing grades to students not completing homework and student absences.  He also said that students were missing more school because of the new semester test policy which requires all students to take semester tests, not only those with poor attendance.  Besides the principal, one board member was mentioned as asking why the school had so many failing grades.  This story most likely isn’t over yet.  Although the article makes no mention of what will be done to decrease the failing grades, grades will be assessed at the next board meeting as the quarter draws to a close.

            It seems that the major players in school news (at least according to a study of the local media) are the administrators and the members of the school board.  Every story mentioned the high school principal, the superintendent, and at least one member of the school board (sometimes the president, but not always).  These people are social power leaders, but the newspaper’s poor coverage make it seem that these people make all of the decisions and that few others have chance for much input.  The others that do provide input in the issues covered in the newspaper over the last couple of years have mostly been business owners or people with high status positions within an established company (Hy-Vee).  None of the people mentioned are average laborers.  One doesn’t really know where these business leaders fit in the social power hierarchy through examination of the media alone.  All definitely have a voice, but the paper doesn’t give enough of a voice to these parties through additional interviews.  Had the paper took the time to interview these parties in depth, a better guess of where these people fall in the power structure of the community could be made.

            Another entity high on the power structure continuum in our community is the newspaper itself.  Although the journalism isn’t very good, what is printed is accepted as gospel by most in the community.  Although the information is presented in a nonbiased manner, the paper needs to work harder to get more of the story.  Without it, people in the community make decisions or harbor feelings based on insufficient reporting.

            The media is a good way to analyze the power structure of communities.  Even in those communities that have poor media, a principal can benefit by taking the time to read the issues that a paper covers and those involved.  However; a principal needs to be able to assess what is missing in the local paper and use other strategies (such as observations and surveys) to get a more complete picture of the power structure of a school community.