by | Aug 1, 2013 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Publishers’ Auxiliary/August 2013

A reader complains: Why is it necessary to print the dollar amount of all building permits? Wouldn’t it suffice to acknowledge a household remodeling project without a price tag?

The reader didn’t say it, but the editor is certain the following thought was on her mind: “After all, the dollar value is only for snoopy neighbors.”

On the surface, the argument appears legitimate. Simply reporting that a permit was issued would serve the purpose of monitoring local construction.

But editors should think twice when they set guidelines for how to treat the variety of government data. The example of building permits underscores the difficulty that arises. The minute newspapers omit one piece of information in one record, they will likely be asked for special consideration in others.

Consider these examples that I encountered during my tenure as editor of a community newspaper:

Ambulance runs – It’s appropriate to report people taken from accident scenes, most people agree – though it is not a universal opinion. But they say it’s an invasion of privacy to list the calls to homes.

Traffic tickets – Society should know who is ticketed for drunken driving, some say, but is it really necessary to print every speeding ticket?

Bankruptcies – It might be newsworthy if a business goes bankrupt, many argue, but what’s the public good of drawing public attention to an individual’s financial problems?

These instances aren’t cut and dried either. I recall when a woman threatened to sue our newspaper because we named her son who was injured in a bicycle accident. She claimed that the report would reveal her location to her ex-husband, though he did not live in our circulation area and was unlikely to see the newspaper. Her attorney never called. As upset as she was, the information clearly was public.

Many newspapers take their role seriously as a daily record – “a living history,” if you will. Public records are a major part of that chronicle. But there’s a greater reason for carrying these reports beyond something being a public record. Altogether, the information presents a pulse of the community.

There’s additional public value. For example, burglary reports alert a neighborhood to suspicious activity. Bankruptcy notices warn unsuspecting merchants who might otherwise take a financial hit through nonpaying customers.

Specific to building permits, the dollar value of business construction or a new home is valid. It offers a sense of the market, especially for those considering purchasing or building themselves. It’s difficult to list the value of those permits, but omit the data for remodeling projects.

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.

Editors readily accept that many people are less enthusiastic when they read their names in a public record. But imagine the reaction of readers if they know that some portion of a public record was withheld simply due to a person’s request.

The 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. Readers are best served by a full menu of public information rather than a selective serving.

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.