The Inlander/June 2011
A couple gets a divorce, but it is not recorded in the newspaper until four months later.
Someone appears in court for a domestic assault; the sentence isn't reported in the newspaper until weeks after the fact.
Their publication raises two questions: What constitutes these items as news? Why is there such a delay in the report?
The circumstances unfortunately occur too frequently in many newspapers. It’s reasonable for readers to challenge publication of the information.
Newspapers are quick to cite the information is public under state law. Ambulance runs, marriages and divorces, traffic tickets, court fines – these items and many more fall under the realm of public records.
That doesn’t stop individuals, however, from challenging publication of a specific record and advancing what they consider justification for withholding publication. Some of the arguments may have merit.
Newspapers’ strongest defense is that all public records must be treated the same. It's unreasonable to ask editors to be judge and jury – trying to determine who has a valid argument for withholding information and who does not.
Individuals may disagree with the practice of publishing public records. At the same time, readers should be much more critical - and legitimately so - if newspapers are selective in what they publish. A policy riddled with double standards is no policy at all.
As with any "right" to publish records, newspapers have an accompanying responsibility. Readers are right to insist that editors and reporters do everything possible to ensure timely reports. Public records often are of sensitive nature – a divorce, a bankruptcy, a court sentence. The circumstances can be stressful for individuals and their publication draws more attention. Delayed publication can unnecessarily aggravate a situation.
Newsrooms strive for punctual reports. That said, it's a two-step process over which they have varying degrees of control.
The first step is the release of the information from the appropriate agency. The process often has some built-in delays beyond the control of reporters. The best approach is to work with officials to get the information as soon as possible.
At the same time, editors and reporters can control how soon the information gets published once they receive it. The turnaround is something that usually can be improved upon.
Newsrooms should welcome and appreciate the feedback from readers. Their inquiries are good reminders to regularly address the delays in gathering and reporting public records.
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 of public data rather than a selective serving. Their argument is strongest if they deliver prompt and accurate reports.