Most good journalists I know take pride in their affiliation with a profession backed by the First Amendment and dedicated to the public’s right to know. They like to think they are upholding the freedom of speech and the press by providing information that serves the public interest.
Unfortunately in this time of downsizing, it has become more and more difficult to dedicate resources to the kind of journalism that goes beyond the “reporting” of information that is basically lying on the table for anyone who is interested. In other words, newspapers and electronic media can provide their readers with lots of stories that basically rehash information presented at news conferences or through police reports and press releases. That’s easy and cheap.
What isn’t so easy is taking the time and effort to go beyond the surface of information presented by public entities from their own perspective. A public entity is any governmental institution from federal to state, county and city, a school district or any agency of government.
In their watchdog role, journalists are responsible to hold such public entities accountable for their actions and their words and make sure that what is presented to the public isn’t leaving out other important issues that really are in the public’s interest to know. That involves talking to real people who are directly involved in the stories we report. And it involves asking good questions that make public entities have to explain their actions.
It should not be a crusade by journalists to dig dirt out of every story they cover. Rather it is a dynamic created by healthy skepticism and probing questions that helps keep the various institutions in our community accountable to the public they serve.
Thus, it is refreshing for our reporters to deal with Allen County government officials, for example, who freely give us access to ask questions and seek information in relation to their policies and procedures. Reporters are able to develop their sources by meeting with them face to face during their weekly rounds, creating relationships with them that welcome dialogue and accountability from both sides.
It is through that kind of reporting, when a journalist can pick up the phone or stop by an office to talk directly to someone in government, that the media can go beyond the “officialspeak” of news conferences and press releases. In this way reporters can ask more detailed questions, get background information and attempt to offer a broader perspective to news stories than just the guarded and positive public-relations prose presented by press secretaries.
It’s unfortunate that some other organizations we report on are not as transparent as Allen County government. So we do what we can, even though it’s mostly on their terms.
The key is transparency, and we believe it’s inherent in building public trust that public entities do all they can to allow journalists to dig in and freely report those issues that truly are in the public interest.