Malcolm X famously said that the media is the most powerful entity on earth. It can make the guilty innocent and the innocent guilty. The public at large should be wary of this power. It is not only enshrined in our constitution but in stable nations the world over, that innocence should be assumed until guilt is proven, and proof requires facts. Factual reporting and journalistic standards are desperately needed from members of the media, some who have spent more than a year flaming the fires of division and discontent in the Central Bucks School District community and beyond, with allegations and innuendo that are yet unsettled.
It’s almost a year since the story broke regarding the suspension of teacher Andrew Burgess, and the subsequent grandstanding that resulted when the ACLU filed a complaint alleging a “toxic educational environment for LGBQ&T students.” That allegation is truly a charge against the entire district: teachers, students, administration and parents. It’s an accusation against the reputation of a stellar school district and, ultimately, an indictment on the entire community of people who have built their lives and raised their families here and fostered deep bonds with their neighbors. Many of us chose to live in this special community because it offered so much opportunity and an incomparable quality of life — a truly wonderful place to live and put down roots.
The allegations themselves are an open wound on our district that must be healed. That warrants a thorough investigation and accurate reporting of the facts. All of us as stakeholders should be eager for and demand factual information, so that our district can understand the root of what brought us to what feels like a war within our community.
In the year since the Burgess story broke, one can argue that the power described in Malcolm X quote has been demonstrated by multiple media outlets who failed their duty of journalistic integrity to report on the story in a non-biased manner.
Reporters from the Bucks County Courier Times, the Bucks County Herald, WHYY, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, just to name a few, created a narrative and amplified it, without conducting a thorough investigation, exposing their bias and fanning the flames of division without regard for the collateral damage they unleashed on our school district and greater community. The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board unmasked their prejudice, with a December headline “What is going on at the Central Bucks School District is an appalling disregard for LGBTQ students.” How can such a headline presuming guilt be written, by an editorial board of a once esteemed and venerable newspaper, without a verified facts regarding a complaint that incriminates an entire cadre of teachers, administrators, students and families?
Front page news this week informs us that Mr. Burgess is now suing the district. It’s wise that this reporter uses the word “allege” in one form or other, seventeen times, as the matter of this new lawsuit is exactly that: another allegation. And yet she tells us that this suit “provides the first details” surrounding these event. Thank you, Ms. Ciavaglia for telling the public there have been no details, despite the press crowing about this matter for a year.
Democracy is in peril, and the very tenets of our constitution are in peril, when reporters exist to only extol a narrative, without honesty and journalistic integrity.
Once the ACLU filed a complaint, entirely redacted, without any complaints having been reported to our staff and administration, CBSD had no choice but to hire a law firm to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations. It is the administration’s duty to protect all of our students, as well as the future and the reputation of our district, its teacher and students and to not conduct an investigation would constitute a dereliction of duty.
A great deal of ink and breath, combined with the innumerable keystrokes expended by fierce, often anonymous activists and keyboard warriors, has been spent regarding the cost of the investigation that will be passed on to the taxpayers. We are due an exhaustive and fair reporting of the expenses incurred as a result of this ACLU complaint.
The Central Bucks School District announced today that they will receive the report from the legal firm regarding the ACLU complaint at a special meeting on Thursday, April 20 and the board will consider dissemination of the report. For the sake of our fractured community it is crucial that the manner and operation of the bullying charges finally be divulged. If we live in a district where bullying is commonplace, we all should want to know specifics.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) subscribes to a Code of Ethics regarding journalistic standards and professional conduct. According to its preamble, “Members of the SPJ believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.” Their four principles are to: Seek Truth and Report It; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; and Be Accountable and Transparent.
It is right and just that the journalists covering the results of this legal investigation write about the findings in a fair and unbiased manner. For the sake of the public’s trust in them, they must do so as vigorously as they have written about allegations this past year. To do anything else would be to fan the flames of divisiveness and anger that have deeply broken our community.
Many people tell me the media tells a story, but not always the whole story. Over the past year, it feels as though our stellar school district has been targeted by the media intent to paint a picture so as to destroy what so many of us hold so dear.
For the sake of our democracy, our constitution, and our entire populace, we should all demand the truth. Anything less will prove Malcom X’s words true, eroding the presumption of innocence and baring the festering wound that will continue to devastate all of us.
Donna Shannon is a concerned Central Bucks parent, small business owner and full-time community volunteer.