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Editorial - Serving citizens well

September 24, 1997

It's been 10 years, at least, by reporter Marlo Barnhart's reckoning, that she covered the story of what happened when a mental patient jumped off the roof of the Washington County Hospital.

The staff on duty that night tightened the lid and said essentially nothing, she recalls. The next day she got a call from Horace Murphy, president of the hospital, who said he was putting together a press tour, so that reporters could see exactly what happened, and where.

The tour made it clear to her that this patient did not just wander out of his unit and onto the roof, but made a determined effort to evade the staff, even to the point of jimmying the lock on the door leading to the roof before he jumped. What Murphy did defused the situation, combatting the rumors about what might have happened with facts.

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Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades did the same thing after a series of suicides at the county detention center, showing reporters how prisoners had hooked sheets into ceiling vents.

These are the kinds of the things that the Hagerstown YMCA should have done following the accident involving 7-year-old Kari Trumpower Sept. 11. Instead YMCA personnel have stonewalled the media, refusing to even say whether their personnel were on duty during the incident. It a serious mistake, but one which is not surprising in Washington County, where public relations is considered an unnecessary frill by most companies and government agencies.

Without any appreciation of the need for regular and effective communication with the public, they roll along blissfully until something bad happens. Then somebody, the CEO or a member of the board, perhaps, ad libs a response that often provides too little information, long after the time when all the facts should have been on the table.

What the YMCA and other agencies do not realize is that the public's memory is short; you need to prove yourself every day. This is as true in the newspaper business as it is in any other field. Not long ago I wrote a column about my son's musings about a career in journalism, and said that if a doctor's son had said he wanted to follow in dad's footsteps, he'd be happier about it than I am about my son's possible career choice.

Following the column, I got a letter from a woman who said that my column should have read "a doctor's son or daughter." Now longtime readers will know that was an inadvertent slip, that I have written in opposition to sexual harassment and in favor of organizations like CASA - the local battered woman's shelter. In 1996 I got involved when a young woman from Boonsboro High wanted to go to a summer medical program at Johns Hopkins University. I negotiated with the school for an extended payment deadline, made fund-raising calls and wrote several columns to seek donations.

I know what my record is, and I could have tossed this woman's letter in the round file. But I know that not everybody remembers what I did last year, or even last week. I have to prove myself every day. And so I apologized in my column, and made note of the Hopkins connection.

This is the mistake the Hagerstown YMCA is making - believing that because they've done good work in the past, they don't need to justify their activities in the present.

Their press release on the accident noted that there hasn't been a serious accident there in 40 years. That's apparently true, but in reviewing the clips we have on file from 1962 to 1995, I found a ton of stories where the community was being asked for X thousand dollars, for this or that expansion or improvement. No doubt the Y will be asking again sometime in the future, and will need a store of goodwill to get people to make those donations. This ain't the way to build it up.

As for the police, being a police reporter in this county has always depended on building a personal relationship with members of each department. It's something I was never very good at, because as a political reporter, I was trained to be skeptical of authority figures. Years ago, before Sheriff Mades took office, one of my assignments was to visit the sheriff's department each morning to get overnight calls.

My first stop was the patrol office, where deputies were coming off the night shift. They'd tell me about the good arrests they'd made and the cases they'd closed. Then I'd go to the sheriff's office and try to get the reports. Usually I got very little, because what was released depended less on departmental policy than on their reaction to me personally.

It's time to put attitudes like that aside, just as officers have put aside their old revolvers for more modern automatic weapons. The newspaper can (and does) assist police by printing descriptions of suspects, offers of rewards for information in unsolved cases and features on how officers do their jobs or perform good works in the community. Now we need to take this partnership to the next level.

Reporters are trained to be objective, to cover their subjects fairly whether or not they like them personally. It's time for all local police agencies to start doing the same thing.

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