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“You have to go through our PR firm.”

That’s what Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said as he hustled away from a RiverheadLOCAL reporter who wanted to talk with him at the end of Tuesday night’s school board meeting. 

It wasn’t the first time Tornatore made a quick exit when we sought to speak with him after a meeting. And it’s a fair bet it won’t be the last, since school board actions at meetings often require follow-up for clarification. One major reason this follow up is essential is that the board typically has very little public discussion before a vote — even a very significant vote. This is a longstanding issue with the Riverhead school board, but we never had any problem communicating with a superintendent — after a board meeting, or in a call or text — until Tornatore’s predecessor, Aurelia Henriquez, took office. 

When a new superintendent came to Riverhead, we requested a sit-down in his office at his earliest convenience. We wanted to address these issues as soon as possible. 

At that meeting, we spoke about our desire to improve communications and stressed the importance of direct communication, without an outside PR firm running interference. Tornatore assured us that he strives for complete transparency and would be as accessible as his busy schedule would allow. He would never put that kind of a wall between us because he sincerely values the role of the press, he told us.  

Until the press asks questions people don’t want to answer, or publishes facts that people would rather keep under wraps. Then, there are no in-person or phone interviews. Then, you have to send your questions by email and if you’re lucky — or well-behaved enough, apparently — you get an emailed response directly from the superintendent.  

But if you don’t behave, if you report things the superintendent and/or school board members don’t want reported, or you report things in a way they don’t like — it doesn’t matter how accurate it is if it’s perceived as casting the individuals involved in a negative light — well, then, apparently, you get punished. Then you don’t even get emailed answers from the official who’s elected by voters or appointed by elected officials. 

Then you’re told, “You have to go through our PR firm.” The very nature of public relations is to make a client look good, or, if that’s not possible, to do effective damage control.

Answers that come from a public “information” officer or a PR firm, are very often non-responsive answers from a third-party intermediary, or selective information, or just plain spin.

Our job is to get at the facts and report them, in context. Sometimes that doesn’t make the officials “look good.” That’s just how it goes. News organizations are not in the public relations business. 

Interviews with decision-makers are crucial to news reporting. Answers are natural, not filtered. And there is the opportunity for follow-up questions and clarifications as needed.

Yes, we ask critical questions. We push back when the person we’re interviewing is trying not to answer a direct question directly — which is a lot more often than the average reader might suspect. 

And when elected or appointed officials are not forthright in how they answer legitimate questions, we promise you, you’re going to read about it here. 

It’s our obligation. Indeed, it’s our duty. 

But it’s clear district officials don’t value our journalism. The examples are endless, but here are a few:

At the district’s reorganizational meeting, when voting to designate the official news organizations of the district, Trustee Therese Zuhoski said: “I just hope that the official media and newspapers this year really highlight a lot of the positive things that are happening in our school districts and within our town.”

The silent part of Zuhoski’s statement has been said out loud time and again by Trustee Christopher Dorr. Dorr has repeatedly insulted us and tried to discredit our reporting. At a budget presentation in March, he mischaracterized an article we published about the district’s budget increase. He claimed we reported taxes would increase 5%. He was wrong. The article in question accurately reported that a budget line — not taxes — would increase by 5%.

“Maybe we’ll get a retraction or a correction this week,” Dorr said. 

Neither the trustee nor a district representative actually sought a correction or retraction. That would require a discussion of facts, which is entirely different from making scurrilous claims from the dais.  

Tuesday night, Dorr attacked us again.

“Once again, RiverheadLOCAL tries to paint the school district in a bad light with their headline about ‘Riverhead school district rejects agreement with town for collection of $2.9 million,’” he said, referring to an article we published Monday. But he left out the rest of the headline, which continues, “for fear it will involve district in litigation.” 

His complaint? “It makes it look like we just gave up on that money,” he said.

Dorr acknowledged that the “problem” with the headline, as he saw it, was how people on Facebook don’t read an article before forming and expressing an opinion. 

“They read the headline, and then they go crazy on Facebook with their own opinions instead of actually reading the article,” he said. “I would hope that RiverheadLOCAL would try to paint the school district in a better light than what they do.”

The headline was 100% accurate, drawn directly from a letter written by the district’s lawyer.  Obviously we can’t control what people read before voicing their opinions or whether statements made by Facebook users are accurate. We don’t police misinformation on Facebook. That complaint should be taken up with Mark Zuckerberg.

When we reported factually accurate information about the new assistant superintendent’s career before he came to Riverhead, he cried foul. Again, no request for a correction was made — because there was nothing to correct. 

When factual reporting makes someone “look bad,” it’s not the fault of the reporter. Instead of immediately blaming the press, maybe district officials should step back and take a hard look at their actions if  there is public backlash. Sure, some complaints may just be an anger-fueled social media tirade, but others may be legitimate criticisms worthy of attention and reflection.

When we’re shunned, ignored or even publicly skewered by officials because of our fact-based reporting, we don’t see it as punishment. We see it as validation. It tells us we’re doing our job. And anyone who thinks we’re not going to be faithful to our duty, “without fear or favor,” as the saying goes, has another thing coming. We’re not intimidated by them. We’re inspired.

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