Saturday, September 24, 2005

Letter shows effect of media on small town news

Sometimes I wonder why I keep my subscription to the Lamar Democrat.
Of course, I spent nearly 10 years working for the Democrat, working for the company from May 1978 to October 1979 and then again from November 1982 through March 1990, and I covered the city of Lamar off and on from May 1978 through my time at The Carthage Press and again with The Turner Report.
If it were just the paper's coverage of news, I probably would not be inclined to renew my subscription every six months, but there are other segments of the newspaper that I like. I read the records material, the weddings, engagements, and anniversaries, and nothing is better than a good letter to the editor, even though the Democrat went years without running any that were even slightly critical of the newspaper's coverage and still runs only a handful.
The Democrat editor has always been happy about running letters that are critical of other media outlets and one of the best of that kind of letter ran in Wednesday's edition.
Beverly Holub, the sister of David Alan Inman, the prisoner who hanged himself in the Barton County Jail recently. She refers to an article, which I somehow overlooked. Since the newspaper was not mentioned, I will assume that it was most likely the Joplin Globe, though it could have been the Springfield News-Leader. "In the article, it states that the individual was 'identified as David Alan Inman, according to family members.' What the article did not say is that this information was received from the family after multiple phone calls from the media to the family home less than 24 hours after David was laid to rest and the family had not even had time to mourn him. The name was not intentionally released."
She then goes on to make the point that the media focused on the manner of his death and a few court filings without also mentioning that Mr. Inman was also a member of the Missouri National Guard and that "he served overseas in Kuwait and served his country with honor and integrity."
She makes valid points about what is wrong with the news media today, but her eloquent, heartfelt letter naturally lacks some perspective because of her closeness to the situation.
First, Barton County Sheriff Shannon Higgins should never have made the agreement with the family not to release the information about Mr. Inman's death. He had no legal right to do that, as I have written in earlier editions of The Turner Report.
When he refused to say which prisoner killed himself in a taxpayer-supported facility, he immediately made it look as if there was something to hide and as much as told the media, you are going to have to get your information from somewhere else.
If the sheriff had simply released the information (which was not a secret in the community anyway), the story probably would have been buried in a back section of the newspaper, with very little additional information added. The conversation about it would have quickly passed.
By no means does that absolve the media of any blame in this matter. Family members should simply not have been called. How can the media be surprised that many people would like to see limitations on the First Amendment right to freedom of the press when they cannot even show a shred of common decency?
It appears to be a case of lack of sensitivity and lack of training. The public's right to know has to be balanced with other considerations. The public has a right to know who died in the jail and has a right to know if that death occurred because of negligence by the sheriff's department. It does not have a right to a graphically detailed description of what happened and it does not require or even want the family to be bothered either during its time of mourning or thereafter.
As for the lack of training, it was not as if the information was not available from other sources. County jails have to maintain a prison roster, which is a public record. Admittedly, just because something is a public record does not guarantee you will be given access to it, but it is a place to start.
On those occasions when some public official tried to shut me out of information, I would get on the phone or go see anyone who might have some details for me. This might be one of those occasions where an unnamed source could have been used. Of course, these days, reporters do not take the time to develop sources. If you can't get someone with the sheriff's department to confirm the information, talk to other public officials or other people who know the sheriff and deputies. I guarantee you the only people they did not talk to about this situation were representatives of the media. I also had some luck in the past with getting simple confirmation on matters (not private information necessarily) from people connected with the coroner's office or the funeral home.
And there is always the following approach, which may not have worked but could have been used. The sheriff had already released the information that the prisoner who died was a 37-year-old male. Simply check the death notices, find a 37-year-old male who died that day, get your information confirmed through secondary sources, then call the Sheriff's Department and say, "We are planning on running a story that David Inman was the man who committed suicide in the jail," then ask if he has any comment. If he does not have a comment, at least he was given an additional opportunity to make sure that the story comes out with as little damage to the family as possible.
If it takes an extra day or two to get the story, then that's the way it has to be, but I would never, never have contacted a family member.
Ms. Holub was absolutely on-the-mark with her criticism of the media's performance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your support in letting the Media know what they can do to people for a story..........Bev