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Archive for March 3rd, 2009

Who will push for public records?

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

A man called the newsroom today to ask how he could keep his recent home sale out of the newspaper.

I told him we don’t exempt things from the records page. There are lots of people who wouldn’t want to be in the blotter or have their divorce or foreclosures reported.

His argument was, “It’s no one’s business.”

To which I replied, “Obviously, the government feels differently. That’s why they made it a public record.”

I explained that anyone — me, his neighbor, his best friend — could go get a copy of the information anyway.

“I know,” he said, “but if they really want to know, they should have to do the leg work.”

I explained his logic to him in other terms: “So, if someone wants to know what’s happening in City Council, they should have to attend the meeting right?”

He thought about it, thanked me for my time and went about his life.

The man wasn’t crazy or obnoxious about it. Someone in the assessor’s office told him who compiles the home sales for the J&C. (I picked up that editor’s line because he was off today.) The man said he didn’t want to hurt neighbors feelings by the price it sold for. I don’t have strong feelings about the journalistic value of publishing home sales. Except that for some reason people are nosy and love that stuff, so we print it. News is what people want to know, right?

My responses to his pleading was what surprised me. Normally, I wouldn’t be that forthcoming. It probably was I waiting on the state superintendent to arrive, so I really just wanted to get off the phone. But maybe it’s that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a world without journalists would look like.

I didn’t go into detail with him, but when I said the line about the city council, I was thinking, sarcastically, “So obviously nobody in this city actually cares about what’s happening.” That obviously isn’t true. Therein lies the importance of what we do that so many people take for granted.

This man wanted us not to print the information for the exact reason we publish a newspaper. We aim to get out, in a way that’s easy to access and digest, the information most people don’t know is available, wouldn’t know where to begin finding or would never have or take the time to pursue. You can argue about reporter’s biases and agenda, but one of the important roles we serve is as an impartial observer and chronicler. Our first draft of history, in most cases, is the only version that ever gets written. I have absolutely no stake in whether the price of that caller’s home gets printed or not. I do not care. But I do care that the record we publish is complete. He wanted it to be hard to access because he knows nobody will bother taking the time. Nobody except the newspaper that has decided publishing these public records is important. If journalists are not there to push for not only that but more important records, who will?