Rights and responsibilities of reporting public records

Red Wing Republican Eagle
May 10, 2001

A couple get a divorce, but it is not recorded in the newspaper until four months later. Someone appears in court for a domestic assault, but 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 questions were raised this week by a couple of readers. It wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last time that the R-E is challenged about the publication of this information.

The simplest answer is that these are public records under state law. Ambulance runs, marriages and divorces, traffic tickets, court fines – they all fall under the realm of public information.

Individuals often will challenge publication of a specific record and present what they consider justification for withholding publication. Some of the arguments may have merit.

From the R-E’s perspective, however, all public records must be treated the same. It’s difficult to place this newspaper in the position of being judge and jury – trying to determine who has a valid argument for withholding information and who does not.

We accept that individuals may disagree with the fact that the R-E chooses to print public records. But we expect they would be much more critical – and legitimately so – if we selectively published the records. A policy riddled with double standards is no policy at all.

As with any “right” to publish records, the R-E also has an accompanying responsibility. And the readers are correct that we should 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 the publication of the item draws more attention. Delayed publication can unnecessarily aggravate a situation.

The R-E tries its best to ensure punctual reports. It’s a two-step process over which we 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, and it’s something that is really out of our hands. We have limited ability to speed that process, but do work with officials to get the information as soon as possible.

We do, however, control how soon the information gets published once we receive it. The turnaround of publication is something we always can improve upon.

We appreciate the feedback from readers, and the two calls this week will prompt us to address the delays in the system once again.

Readers may ask why we 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.

We believe society is best served by a full menu of public data rather than a selective serving.