With Viral “Rip & Redo” Video, Both The NYT & Success Academy Could Have Done Better

Alexander Russo:

On Friday morning, this shocking video was published in the Metro Section of the New York Times. On a surreptitious cell phone video, Success Academy Charter Schools (SA) Charlotte Dial berates a student.

If you haven’t already stopped to watch it, you should do so now. It’s only about a minute long. (No time? Not to worry. There’s a GIF version of the key moment further down.)

In an accompanying story, education reporter Kate Taylor wrote that “Interviews with 20 current and former Success teachers suggest that while Ms. Dial’s behavior might be extreme, much of it is not uncommon within the network.”

On Friday afternoon, SA held a press conference to rebut the Times’ coverage and to suggest that the problem was much more isolated than it appeared from the video: “We can’t seem to get a fair shake from the so-called paper of record,” said SA head Eva Moskowitz.

But the Times rejected the high-profile attempt to discredit its reporting, and subsequently posted a roundup of reader comments and classroom expert views. Then came a slew of Tweets, “hot takes” and a couple of explainers from mainstream outlets including Vox and the Washington Post.

Now having read most of the relevant materials, spoken to the Times deputy editor who was in charge of the piece, and gotten some additional explanations from SA itself, there are several key questions that remain unanswered, including:

1) Did the videotape and the accompanying stories of high-pressure teaching at SA schools really make the case that these kinds of practices are characteristic/common problems within the SA charter network — and if so are they any more common than they might be at other comparable NYC public schools?

2) How well or poorly did the Times and SA respond to what was a high-pressure situation for both organizations? What else might they have done to make their cases more compelling and useful to the public and the kids attending these schools?

As you’ll see below, my take is that both organizations could – should – have done better, and, the focus of this site being education journalism rather than PR strategy, that the Times in particular might have taken a few relatively easy steps to be even more careful and thoughtful than it was apparently trying to be.