The Miami-Dade School Board is looking to take control over local public radio and television station WLRN by directly managing it. The board, which already owns the station, is now looking to abolish the management of WLRN — the nonprofit South Florida Public Media — and give themselves direct control over operations.
The operating agreement, the Miami Herald says, would give the school board access to hiring and firing WLRN staff and could open the door for direct programming content. This leaves a host of ethical issues on the table if this proposal passes. SPJ Florida doesn’t believe it should stand.
“Anything that is a limit on a free press is a limit on all of us,” says SPJ Florida Pro President Dori Zinn. “There’s no good reason why any school district should operate, what should be, a completely independent news organization.”
According to the Herald, school district representatives softened the control they would have over the station, saying the biggest reasoning for the change was “student safety concerns.”
“WLRN’s news staff has not undergone the full criminal background checks required of all public school employees — potentially endangering interns who work at the station’s offices,” the Herald says.
A school board spokesperson told the Miami New Times that it isn’t about “silencing journalists or limiting free speech” and says they would never hinder independent journalism.
SPJ National President Lynn Walsh stands by the Florida Pro chapter.
“How can the public trust that WLRN’s coverage will not be influenced by the school board? I don’t think you can, and that is why SPJ is against the school board approving a measure that would eliminate the radio station’s independent status,” Walsh says. “WLRN provides an important service to communities in South Florida and has done so through ethical, ground breaking and responsible journalism. Reporting like this is needed now more than ever.”
Carolyn Guniss, president of South Florida Black Journalists Association, joins SPJ in speaking out against this proposal.
“Media have always been under pressure when it comes to covering their corporate owners. But the school board is funded by taxpayers. The public should loudly voice its disdain at the school board’s attempt to chip away at the Chinese wall that rightfully exists between itself and WLRN’s excellent news professionals.”
SPJ Florida Pro and other organizations strongly condemns this restraint on the First Amendment. We urge the school board to rescind this agreement so that WLRN can continue to produce quality and objective reporting and storytelling.
“The more any government entity — even a school board — has direct control over a media outlet, the more the public is punished,” Zinn says. “A restricted press is a restricted community and eventually, a restricted country.”