For any news-gathering organization, a story like this is extremely difficult because the authoritative source — the school district in this case — refused to comment. This leaves us with what we believe is an important story, given to us by several local and credible sources, but which cannot be confirmed by "official" sources. (Although all but one of our sources asked to have their names withheld in the story, for fear of retribution against their children, their identities were always known to us.)
So we were left with a hard choice: Either bring a serious story to light, knowing that some comments about the teacher would be construed as unfair, or not publish the story at all, smothering an issue that the upset parents said had been smoldering in the district for several years.
As Voice managing editor Don Frances explains in the following response to a letter writer, deciding to publish was not an easy decision:
One major issue is whether the story was justified, i.e. is it a newsworthy story. Obviously we (the publisher and I) think it was or we wouldn't have run it.
Determining whether to run a controversial story is not a perfect science — there's no equation to plug the variables into and get a right answer. In this case, we were trying to determine whether this problem with the teacher was an anomaly (a spat with one angry parent) or part of a larger pattern.
With four different families coming to us, plus another person close to the story whose identity I cannot disclose, it was obvious that the complaints about Patty Polifrone were part of a larger pattern. Like it or not, there are a lot of people who, regarding this teacher, fall somewhere between unhappy and furious, who have tried unsuccessfully to have her disciplined or removed, and who came to us as a last resort. And that's news. For any community paper worth its salt, an elementary school teacher yelling at her students "on a regular basis" is news.
Add to all that the fact that these people say they've been trying to go through school district channels for months, and gotten nowhere, and that concerns about this teacher date back several years, and the decision to run this story becomes that much easier.
A second major issue is whether the story is fair, which is a different question. In this case we had only the one side to go on (our five sources), since the other side essentially refused to talk to us (the district gave us a canned non-response, and Polifrone never returned our calls and e-mails).
After that, there's little else we have to go on. Obviously we're not in a position to canvas the neighborhood before the story comes out, asking everyone's opinion about this teacher. The best we can do is make sure the story presents the complaints against Polifrone as their complaints, not ours, which I took great pains to do. Again, one parent does not a story make, but a number of families piling on makes a very compelling case that something is wrong. (As it turns out, the Web allows us to actually canvas the neighborhood, after the fact, and find out everyone's opinion about this teacher. Reading those comments, many of which are unsparing, has made us all the more certain that we've presented this story fairly.)
I don't believe for a minute that our story has ruined Polifrone's life or been a "sentence of death" to her reputation. As far as I can tell — again, judging from the Web remarks — her reputation remains exactly what it was before this story came out: that of a tough, blunt and indiscreet woman who often talks (or yells) without thinking, but whose style can be very good for some students and very bad for others.