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No comment on what this column's about

June 29, 2008|By LINDA DUFFIELD

Sometimes, we write stories that we know contain information that will make some people unhappy. Even angry.

Other times, we send people directly to irate without having a clue that what we wrote could strike some people the wrong way.

We understand that in trying to fulfill our obligation to inform the public about what goes on, we are going to step on some toes. It goes with the territory.

Sometimes, though, what is considered by responsible reporters and editors as being a basic part of the job is taken by some as a slap in the face.

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One such part of the job is noting in stories which public officials did not return phone calls, were unreachable for comment or refused to comment for a particular story.

There are two reasons why we do this.

The first reason is a fairness issue.

Newspapers, including The Herald-Mail, publish stories that can show the subjects in an unfavorable light. Stories about civil suits are a good example. The suits contain a lot of information from the point of view of the person doing the suing and no information from the person or entity being sued.

So it is imperative that we give the defendant a chance to comment.

If we cannot reach the defendant, we would be remiss if we did not include in the story that an attempt, or better yet, attempts, had been made to reach the defendant for comment.

A second reason for including the "couldn't be reached" or "declined to comment" information is to make it clear that a reasonable attempt was made to elicit a comment from everyone whose voice should be included to make a story complete.

Here's an example. If we want to give readers a feel for how the Hagerstown City Council or the Washington County Commissioners can be expected to vote on an issue, we try to contact each one. The opinions and/or comments of those we reach are included in the story.

We also mention anyone we were unable to reach or anyone who refused to comment.

We do so, not to embarrass the person, but to make it clear the attempt was made.

Seems to me that when you're responsible for conducting the public's business, your constituents, especially those who voted for you, might be interested in what you had to say on a matter of interest to them.

While I'm on that subject, I have an observation about public officials who choose not to comment.

I understand that they are not always pleased with what we write. After all, if we wrote only the good stuff, we would not be performing our watchdog function, which involves holding public officials responsible for their actions.

When we do anger them, as public officials they have any number of ways to get even: Say nasty things about us at public meetings, write letters to the editor, or call and give us a piece of their minds.

All of that I understand. But I do not understand the tactic of refusing to speak to a reporter or to make a comment. Such action doesn't hurt the newspaper. The only ones it hurts are members of the public, the people who have every right to expect an opinion from somebody they helped elect to do their work.

Makes me long for the day when the buck stopped somewhere, and when those who couldn't stand the heat were advised to stay out of the kitchen.

Linda Duffield is city editor of The Herald-Mail. You can e-mail her at lindad@herald-mail.com.

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