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Posted November 15, 2002 

Publishing Policy
"It is more important to get it right, than get it first"

By Lon Woodbury

Emotional Growth/Therapeutic Schools and Programs have received increased media attention lately, which has created a dilemma for us at Woodbury Reports Inc. Many of the writers in the mainstream media are unfamiliar with the dynamics and special challenges of working with this very difficult population of self-destructive teens, and some write in the tradition of the early 20th century sensation-seeking yellow journalism. It is the intention and direction of Woodbury Reports to report in a fair and responsible manner, the sensitive events regarding schools and programs that work with struggling teens. In doing so, we find two major and somewhat opposing demands made on us in terms of reporting these events with fairness and responsibility. Achieving this goal is further complicated by the challenges of defining our publishing policy as it applies to the relatively new territory of the Internet since we find our website: www.strugglingteens.com composes a large part of our readership.

On the one hand, we are a kind of trade publication. That is, we are sympathetic with those quality schools and programs that are providing intervention for teens whose destructive behaviors are damaging to themselves, their families and their communities. We feel these schools and programs are an important part of the national effort to help our struggling teens turn their behaviors around to become responsible adults. We also recognize that there are some programs and services that don't adhere to professional standards and probably shouldn't be working with children. Nevertheless, there are pressures on us to only report the positive.

On the other hand, since many of our readers are trying to avoid placing their child in an irresponsible school or program, we want to report problems so our readers can have all the information possible, including negative reports. We also receive pressure to publish every rumor or report that casts schools and programs for struggling teens in a negative light.

If we exclusively followed the first demand, we could simply become an apologist for all schools and programs, thereby depriving parents researching schools and programs of all the information they need to make appropriate placement decisions. On the other hand, if we reported everything the media or activists publish, we could simply become a tool for those critics and self-styled child advocates that believe any negative accusation, no matter how outrageous or unfair, again depriving parents of the balanced information they need to make a responsible and intelligent placement decision.

One way we approach this dilemma is our editorial policy: "It is more important to get it right, than get it first." The media's attempt to be the first to report a story contributes to much of the inaccurate and false reporting that goes on in this country. This brings to mind two examples where the effort to be first, made an important difference. The first is the Washington D.C. area sniper story of last month. Because the media had so little real information to report, they gave significant time to "Profilers". Apparently based at least partly on their totally wrong projections, a policeman stopped and talked to the men who were eventually apprehended, but let them go because they did not fit the "Profile." A credible argument can be made that four additional people died because this wrong "Profile" information was heavily presented by the Media in an attempt to beat the competition and get the story first.

In another example, part of the Florida election mess in the year 2000 was possibly caused by the media's rush to predict the state's results before all the votes were cast. Their announcements possibly discouraged many last minute voters from voting, having an immeasurable impact on the final results.

In both these examples, and there are many more, misleading or inaccurate information was published in the effort to be the first to publish a story.

For this reason, we try to avoid contributing to public misinformation by not publishing or linking to a story from a credible source that is negative to a school or program, until the program has had the chance to also present their perspective. This is more easily accomplished with schools and programs that have chosen to work with us, since we know whom to call. However, the opportunity to tell their story in our online and written publications is open to all schools and programs that might be mentioned in other media.

The credibility of the source of the information is important. We are inclined to accept community and city newspapers and their Internet outlets, as credible sources, because they must maintain a reputation for accurate reporting, to insure their own survival. Usually, before publication, a reporter's story must be approved by an editor and sometimes passed through the legal department, and frequently, fact- checkers as well. In addition, there are journalistic standards and peer review to which a reporter wishes to adhere. Falsified facts, plagiarism, and consistently inaccurate stories will get a reporter terminated, because consistently inaccurate reporting will cost readership, making it impossible for a newspaper to survive. In addition, most newspapers have been around for some time and we know who they are and how to contact them. The same applies to a few Internet publications that have established themselves based on traditional journalistic standards. While they may not always get the story right, and may have a publication slant, at least there are considerable pressures on them to aim for accurate, balanced and responsible reporting.

Unfortunately this is not always the case for many Internet sites and some print publications. It seems most of the sites on the Internet that are devoted to struggling teens are hosted by either ex-students or self- styled child advocates. They often have an agenda, emphasizing only stories that agree with their advocacy purpose, and are quick to pre-judge and demonize schools and the people working for the schools and programs. Since these sites and publications I am alluding to are not fair and give little or no pretext of balance, they canít be accepted as credible.

It is our hope that by following this rather cautious publication policy, we have a better chance to get the story right, even if we often donít get it first!