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We have a responsibility to our readers

March 07, 2004|by LINDA DUFFIELD

Some of our readers told us we should be ashamed.

They were displeased that we printed information about the criminal record of the man who, with his wife, saved Bucky the deer.

Some linked our decision to print information about Kevin Hall's brushes with the law to the efforts of Hall and his wife to save the young deer they found on the road and took home with them.

That wasn't the case.

The Halls' efforts to find a home for the deer they named Bucky, and to save him from euthanasia by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, became national news.

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If Bucky's eventual release into the wild had been the end of the story, it would have been the end of the story for us, too. We did not check court records until a letter from the Halls announcing a fund-raising effort connected to the deer ran as a letter to the editor in the Feb. 25 Herald-Mail.

The Opinion pages are handled by the Editorial Page editor, and are separate from the newsroom. Because Editorial and News are separate departments, each has its own policies and standards.

In the letter to the editor, Hall said he felt donations were needed to provide continued care for Bucky, who was released into the wild, and to work to have DNR policies revised.

The letter provided an address for the Halls and gave no indication that an account had been established at a local bank to accept donations.

Under newsroom policy, the information as provided about the fund-raising efforts would not have run on a news page. We do not run stories about people soliciting money for causes unless bank accounts have been set up specifically for those causes. Establishment of such accounts implies a certain amount of accountability, something we feel is necessary before we will run stories that could prompt our readers to donate money.

Had the Halls contacted the News department, they would have been told of our policy. At that point, had they established such an account at a bank, we would have run the story without making a background check. Had they dropped the fund-raising plan, we would not have made the background check.

But because information about the fund-raiser ran as a letter to the editor, the newsroom felt an obligation to perform the check.

We take similar steps in other types of cases.

For instance, we run stories about sick children or adults who are seeking donations to help offset the cost of medical treatment. But we do not run those stories unless an account has been established at a bank.

In such cases, we go a step further. We never run such a story unless we have verified the illness with a doctor involved in the treatment of the sick person.

Are there exceptions? Sure.

We do not routinely make checks when fund-raisers are part of a community effort to, say, build a new library branch. In those cases, the community tends to be involved, and such fund-raisers generally are run by a committee, providing built-in accountability.

We also make an exception for those obituaries in which the family requests donations be made to family members, perhaps to offset funeral costs.

In such cases, it can be presumed that donations will come, not from the general public, but only from people acquainted with the family.

Our policy might seem stringent, but the bottom line is that our first duty is to our readers. It would be doing them a disservice if we were not cautious about what we print.




Linda Duffield is managing editor of The Morning Herald. She may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7591, or by e-mail at lindad@herald-mail.com.

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