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No holding back, we dig for the facts

May 05, 2012|Linda Duffield

I don’t know of anybody in our newsroom who got into the news business because they wanted to cover up for public officials, or anybody else.

Nor am I aware of anybody here who thinks it would be fun or fair to avoid trying to get information about government, court, police, the prisons and so on.

If you stop and think about it, that makes no sense. Getting information is, after all, what a newspaper exists to do.

And yet.

More often than you might think, we receive a call or, even more frequently, an email (probably anonymous) that suggests, in less than polite terms, that we are covering something up.

Please don’t get me wrong. We welcome news tips: They’re how we find out a lot of information that some might think is in their own best interest to keep from us and the public.

Tips aren’t the problem.

What is troublesome are those who call or write and start out like this: How come The Herald-Mail is covering up for the (someone or something, you fill in the blank)?

Then the writer/caller goes on: Why hasn’t this been in the paper? I know you must be aware of this, and shame on you for not reporting it.

In case you think I’m exaggerating, this is an email received last week, with only a name and another identifier omitted.

“I find it very hard to believe you have not heard about (omitted) ... Why have you not reported it. I find it to be extremely news worthy. Some kind of politics going on, that this story somehow has YET to be reported? Come on people, get with the program and report the news as news.”

While we appreciated the tip, I can’t say I was wild about the tone.

Despite the tone, we checked out the information — which we hadn’t heard before receiving the email. We found the information to be accurate but not complete, and we wrote a story — the full story.

Another take on that type of communication involves folks who want an instant follow-up to a story we have written, but for which all the details were not immediately available.

It’s likely we agree we need more information, but we know our suspicions, best guesses and assumptions cannot be printed. We must proceed in a deliberate manner that attempts to ensure our information is accurate, fair and as complete as we can get it.

A lot of times, when we hear from readers who think we should get all of the facts, we have already started following up on the initial story. In that case, if all goes well, we might print another story in a day or two.

When all doesn’t go well, it can take longer. Sometimes we have to file public information requests to get information, a process that does not always have an immediate effect.

That was the case last week when we discovered that the Washington County Commissioners had agreed to pay $100,000 to an unidentified financial company to expand into Washington County. The vote to provide the funds was made in a closed meeting in March 2011.

The information for that story was noticed by a Herald-Mail reporter as she checked out what she figured would be routine payments from the county’s hotel-motel tax fund. She questioned the $100,000 noted in the report. She got a pretty decent story that, without her observation, might never have been reported by anybody, ever.

We are now in the process of trying to determine the identity of the company that was to receive that money.

On Monday, we sent a public information request to the county attorney and the county manager. Under Maryland’s Public Information Act, the county has 30 days to respond to our request one way or the other.

By Friday, we had not heard back from the county. At a gathering Wednesday morning, one county official said information about that economic development incentive might be available within the next few weeks.

Stay tuned; we aren’t hiding anything.


Linda Duffield is The Herald-Mail’s city editor. You can reach her at 301-791-7591.

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