This time, privacy outweighs right to know
By Jim Pumarlo
Public records are the foundation for reporting a range of stories important to your readers.
Police reports reveal a string of continuing break-ins in a neighborhood. Minutes from a school board committee reveal discussions and eventual recommendation to close an elementary school. Letters sent from a state agency to landowners identify potential locations for off-site location of spent fuel from a nearby nuclear power plant.
All of these stories crossed my desk during my tenure as editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. As you might suspect, none of the news sources willingly volunteered the information. We relied on open-meeting and data-practices laws to get the information. Our newsroom credo: The more roadblocks thrown our way to gain access to public information, the more aggressive we became in our efforts.
At the same time, newsrooms should not report public records with reckless abandon. As with any right, newspapers have an accompanying responsibility.
Consider our front-page report of a 7-week-old boy who was revived after suffering cardiac arrest. The “heroes” included the foster parents along with the Red Wing police lieutenant and other emergency personnel who responded – all of whom we identified.
One name was purposely absent from the story: the name of the child, who was under foster care. We also didn’t publish the child’s name in the ambulance runs printed on a separate page.
In this case, we decided the potential hurt to the natural parent outweighed the public’s right to know the identity of the infant. We made the decision after speaking with personnel at the county social services.
This was one of those rare cases where we withheld information.
Our reticence stemmed from the fear that one or more of the child’s parents might be living in the area. Identifying the child, who was born with medical problems, would raise the obvious question among acquaintances of the family: Why was the boy not in his parents’ home?
The county welfare director confirmed our suspicion. In nearly all cases foster children are placed with families in the home county. That was true here as well; one of the youth’s natural parents lived in our home county.
In the final analysis, we asked ourselves whether we still had a compelling story without identifying the child. As the welfare director said, “It was a great story. The crew did a terrific job.”
Editors and reporters should remain vigilant in monitoring public information and the needs of readers. As with this instance, decisions to publish should be based on the merits of each case.
Flexibility is the best posture. Editors should try to blend policies to best serve community needs. But public information should be sacred ground to newspapers. It should be to readers as well.
If editors bow to readers’ wishes – and they were able to eliminate publication of news at the ease of a phone call – imagine the vast incompleteness of reports. An entire newspaper’s content would become suspect.
Readers often ask why newspapers stand firm on access to and publication of these records. It’s much like the proverbial “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” If the press agrees to one concession, all too often an individual or agency will try to stretch the rules. Soon laws are enacted with additional restrictions on what once was routinely public data.
Newspapers should stand firm on the premise that readers are best served by a full menu rather than a selective serving of public data. Your argument is strongest if you deliver prompt and accurate reports.
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions.