This is a guest post by Scott Merritt, public relations executive at the Dalton Agency in Atlanta.
My daily ritual of scrolling through the day’s top headlines commonly unearths surprising, irresistible, and sometimes appalling results. “High School Removes Swastikas From Production Of ‘The Producers’ Following Controversy” was the actual headline I read. Are they insane? How could I not click on that?
The story delivered on the headline’s promise, and it’s gone viral.
Regardless of which news outlet’s version you choose to read – and there are many – the narrative is the same: Students at Tappan Zee High School were forced to strike all swastikas from their production of The Producers. Anyone who is familiar with the now-classic musical knows that without the Nazi symbolism present, any production would suffer a collapse reminiscent of the Third Reich in April 1945.
As I read, I immediately asked myself, “What kind of a monster would censor a high school production of Mel Brooks’ beloved musical comedy?” According to a growing number of news outlets across the country, a monster named Dr. Robert Pritchard, superintendent of South Orangetown Central School District in Blauvelt, N.Y.
So, in a news story that includes references to Hitler and Nazi Germany, how did a school superintendent become the biggest villain of them all?
The entire story is being taken out of context. It’s motivated by the way news works today. News stories today live and die by the number of clicks they generate. Those clicks, shares and eyeballs translate to advertising revenue, and they ensure that the reporter whose name occupies the byline lives to see another day as a journalist. As a result, journalistic integrity goes out the window.
Pritchard has been claimed as the most recent victim of such gross negligence in reporting. A de facto fall guy in an irresistibly outrageous, cringe-worthy story. It’s not that they reported lies, they just obfuscated the truth. If they hadn’t, there would have been no story.
To make matters worse, more news organizations are lifting and editorializing around this story without stopping to check the facts. This is evidenced by the appearance of the story in well-known publications.
Even as a seasoned public relations professional I fell for it. I wrote to Pritchard to express my opinion of his ostensible actions.
Fortuitously, he took the time to write back and set the record straight, putting it in context. According to Pritchard, “there were two, large banners with swaztikas (sic) displayed in a public space two weeks PRIOR to the actual performance. These banners appeared without any explanation, and, unless you were affiliated with the play, [you] would not have known that this was part of an upcoming theater set.”
“It would have been irresponsible to permit these flags to remain in place without any explanation as to the context of why they were displayed in the first place,” he added.
To make matters worse, and thanks to the same technology that helped this grossly negligent news story go viral, Pritchard went on to explain that the banners were “photographed by students and put on social media with no regard to context.” To quell any concerns, he directed the staff to cover the sets until the night of the performance.
Even with the truth readily available, these “journalists” elected to propagandize their stories to fit their narrative. How can we protect the credibility of news when the motivation is revenue? How can we know that the news we’re reading is credible?
With more news being shared than reported, the danger of a misreported story catching fire is real. Ultimately, everyone winds up a victim when the line between news and dramatized nonfiction becomes blurred for the sake of an extra dollar.
The students and administration at Tappan Zee High School are today’s conduit to feed our society’s insatiable thirst for instantaneous, sensational news. And like willing subjects, we click the share button as a Pavlovian response mechanism.
In spite of a seemingly flop-worthy media effort, the students did perform the uncensored musical three times, and it was a rousing success.
Scott Merritt is a public relations executive at the Dalton Agency in Atlanta.