Even after all these years, news myths thrive

bostonnewspaper.gifFROM JASON’S SNAP-BRIM HAT AND TRENCH COAT — Seriously, folks. The first American newspaper, Public Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, was printed in Boston in 1690. You’d think 317 years would be long enough for people to figure out how this business works.

But no — those old misconceptions about non-existent laws that supposedly limit what may be published continue to prosper. Many still don’t understand exactly what it is that reporters do. And too many people out there still think they are entitled to absolute privacy, no matter what the circumstances.

I run into these misguided myths and attitudes of entitlement nearly every day in the course of my work as a journalist. They annoy me. Hopefully, these few points will enlighten the billions who read Quaedam every day:

1) “You can’t print that! It was off the record!”

reporter.pngThere is no such thing as this chimerical “record” that pop culture has created. But thanks to old noir films featuring grungy, stereotyped reporters with press cards in their hats, people believe that “on the record” and “off the record” are relevant and binding concepts.

The Deep Throat scenario from All the President’s Men has ingrained this fallacy into the minds of three generations. Woodward and Bernstein’s method was the gross exception that proved the rule.

True, we do use the term as an informal agreement of confidentiality, but the fact remains that the record has no legal bite. Stating that something is off the record does not necessarily make it so. It is up to the reporter’s discretion to decide whether to grant a self-imposed moratorium on information.

If ever we do accept a statement as off the record, it is in exchange for either better information or a favor. I’ve agreed to put irrelevant information off the record just to bank against a source I may need down the road.

The only negatives consequences of using of-the-record info are loss of reputation and potential loss of that source in the future. Sometimes those losses are acceptable if the trade-off is big enough.

Statements made in public are never off the record, though. I once had a police chief walk by me in a city council meeting, muttering under his breath that a council member was an idiot because he would not increase his police budget. I printed that the chief called the legislator an idiot in public, and the he was irate. He tried to claim the comment was off the record because he did not intend for it to be heard. Too bad.

2) “You’re not allowed to put my child’s name in the paper.”

There is no law against publishing the names, crimes, or other actions of juveniles. Newspapers typically volunteer to withhold the names of people under the age of 18 who are charged with a crime or sexually victimized.

This, however, is not an absolute, and is left open to the discretion of the editors and publishers. Often, children who are charged and tried as adults will be named. Young people who are hurt in accidents or by criminals may also be named.

Reporters do not need special permission from parents or guardians to print the names of children. In some cases, however, there may be special rules surrounding coverage of juvenile courts. As always, judges have the final say in how proceedings are covered. There is also an element of forgiveness on the part of newspapers — mine, for example, does not cover juvenile courts unless there is a compelling public interest.

I recently covered an incident in which a 16-year-old boy was accused of shooting his parents. His mother was killed almost instantly, and his father (who was shot in the face) survived after being hospitalized for a month. We thought it prudent to print the boy’s name when he was charged.

superman.png3) “Reporters are private investigators.”

I am not Clark Kent, nor am I Kal El. It is not my job to solve crimes or catch criminals. I do not track down leads about where your husband is sleeping these nights, unless your husband is a an on-duty police officer soliciting prostitutes instead of patrolling the streets.

If you don’t want it published, don’t call me. If you want someone to help you find order, call the police. If you want someone to help you find justice, call a lawyer.

Many callers to my office want an intermediary to help make their problems go away. That is not what reporters do. We take information and transform it so the masses care and understand an issue. Reporters are professional gossipers with social and financial agendas.

A couple once called me complaining that a city had violated a contract to build a road in front of their house (they allowed the city to build a water tower on their land in return).

I made inquiries at the mayor’s office to find whether the allegation was true, and the next day cement trucks rolled into said neighborhood to pour the road. Once they were gone, the couple called to tell me they didn’t want the story in the paper, and even mentioned legal action.

I laughed and ran the story. I didn’t put pressure on the government for their gain. I did it for mine.

4) “My paycheck is none of your business.”

Anyone can be elected to public offices in America — that’s the biggest advantage and most dire curse of a democratic republic.

Unfortunately, it means too many yokels with no understanding of civics or the law gain power. I deal all the time with backwoods office-holders who don’t understand public records and attempt to deny access. The big-time politicians also try to claim ignorance of the Freedom of Information Act and open meeting laws.

“Sunshine Laws” (like Ohio Revised Code section 149.43) make it very clear what are the rules of the game. Any document used in the course of conducting public business is a public document. That means e-mails, pay stubs, budgets, court papers, police reports, internal memos, personnel files — even Post-It Notes! — are open to purview.

Every last scrap is my business, with notable exceptions: Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, and information related to security measures may be redacted.

A city auditor once refused to tell me to whom the government was loaning tax money. She said finances and loans were not the media’s concern. I quickly disabused her of that notion. She refused to comply with Ohio law several times (while I recorded her refusal), but reneged when I contacted county and state ethics authorities. I found out she was loaning thousands of dollars to business owners so they could fix their facilities.

5) “You ruined my life by putting that in the paper.”

No, I didn’t. You ruined your life by having sex with that high school principal on his desk during school hours. It was already over when that teenager walked in and saw you; all I did was tell the people who pay the principal how their tax money was misspent and their trust was violated.

There is an implied Constitutional right to privacy in the no-quarter clause of the Second Amendment, but that does not compel the media to help the accused or public figures save face. Once an individual gains a certain amount of notoriety, is given responsibility to uphold the public trust, or is charged with a crime (this is not an exhaustive list), they are subject to scrutiny.

The public’s right to know how its resources are handled and what events have or could compromise its safety outweigh the right to an individual’s privacy.


2 Responses to Even after all these years, news myths thrive

  1. Hank Alme says:

    When my wife and I first moved to Los Alamos, Nm, she worked as a layout person for the local paper. They publish the police blotter on occasion, and run into some of these things, especially “you can’t put my kid’s name in the paper!”. They would only name names for people 18 and over.

    One day, a kid comes into the paper’s office, demanding that they not put his recent altercation with the police in the blotter: he didn’t want his mom to find out. He had a few choice words for the editor, maybe thinking he could intimidate her since she was a smallish woman. She told him to get lost, and he got lost.

    She then picked up the phone and called the kid’s mom, whom she knew (small town!), to make sure she saw the police blotter.

    Soldier on Jason. So long as they more or less get it correct, I figure government needs nosy reporters.

  2. […] Even after all these years, news myths thrive – I thought this post from Quaedam about the naivete some still have about what the press can and cannot do was kind of funny. […]

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