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Editorial: The responsibility of credible reporting and the public trust
By Joe McGehee
and Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher
WNTA’s posting of what has now become widely known as the “Dr. Hardy Letter” to its website Nov. 22 came with little or no sense of surprise. “The Dr. Hardy Letter” has become Rockford’s must-read, allegedly unflattering letter of the fall season, and it only seemed like a matter of time before some organization bit at the potential poison apple and made the letter public.
WNTA’s Ken DeCoster said Nov. 22 on air he did not receive permission from Dr. Patrick Hardy to make the letter public. Rockford Public School District 205 is currently facing litigation for not making the letter public to The Rock River Times (TRRT). Yet, DeCoster and WNTA could wait no longer, and posted the letter online after verifying Dr. Hardy had written the letter in their possession. How thorough that verification was, we do not know.
In many ways, WNTA’s and DeCoster’s rush to publish a letter currently pending litigation reflects the “instant gratification” needed for today’s talk-radio audience and for much of the electronic media as well. Or, perhaps more fitting, is TRRT’s Assistant Editor Brandon Reid’s perspective of posting a letter not yet released legally as being “highly irresponsible.”
‘The Journalist’s Creed’ and credible reporting
When Walter Williams, founder and first dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, penned his “Journalist’s Creed” in 1914, he had to know somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind that his words would live on into the next century.
Williams’ “Creed” states: “I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.”
Our battle for the Patrick Hardy letter started as a fact-finding mission. TRRT has received numerous documents anonymously over the last few months. Yet, a cornucopia of doubt still remained. The now out-of-publication Chicago News had a saying that became famous in many journalism circles: “If your mother tells you it’s true, check it out.” In other words, double- and triple-check your sources and source material, as the Watergate Rule exemplifies.
We wish our friends at WNTA had stuck with the same healthy doubt and proven rules. The popular station has wisely and responsibly removed the post from their website.
Noting material claiming to be Dr. Hardy’s letter was posted on the Internet and also sent to the local daily, the local daily’s executive editor, Linda Grist Cunningham, said in her “Editor’s Note” blog, “I’d be shocked if, assuming they also got it, the Rock River Times does not publish the whole thing this week, though they have a public records lawsuit for the letter pending against the district. That might affect what they publish.”
Cunningham should be doubly shocked because we have had such material for quite some time; and we did not publish it then, nor will we now, just because a door was sadly opened.
Seeking legal entry to this material, we sought permission to publish the letter from Dr. Hardy on several occasions, but to no avail. Without the permission of Dr. Hardy, our only recourse was to pursue the letter through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to Rockford Public School District 205. From this newspaper’s perspective, the letter is not in the public domain until the letter is either released directly by the author (Dr. Hardy) or through a FOIA request through District 205.
In protecting each side’s interests, all the anonymous material we have received needs to be double-checked word by word, with the legal, public document provided by Rockford School District 205, which is what our lawsuit is pursuing. Due diligence to fact-check and provide the results of those efforts in print meets the standard of “the public’s right to know,” so the public may have all good faith the knowledge or facts presented are verified with the highest responsibility. While human error is always possible, this paper will not be reckless in any of our presentations.
We pursued Dr. Hardy’s letter according to the letter of the law, jumping through each and every legal or judicial hoop we needed to pass through to legally gain access to the letter.
We created an unmistakable, permanent public record of our pursuit of this letter by publishing every document produced regarding not only the legal rights of TRRT, but also of every taxpayer in Rockford guaranteed under FOIA.
Furthermore, we made the public record of our attempts at legally obtaining the letter available to every taxpayer in Rockford with Internet connectivity, so he or she could see transparent, factual proof of where the issue stood. (Links to TRRT’s complete coverage of its attempts to obtain the Hardy letter are embedded at the end of this editorial.)
TRRT sought to successfully build the “public trust” Williams spoke of by using credible reporting, with supporting documents to back up all statements. We made our actions as clear as any target in a time when District 205 was staring down the barrel of a pending lawsuit for not doing the same.
The argument can be made, our FOIA pursuit is no longer about the “Dr. Hardy Letter.” At this juncture, the issue is more about due process and clear and above-the-board behavior and spending habits by Rockford’s largest taxing body. Now that the supposed letter (without comparative verification) has been presented by WNTA, public opinion will soon form on each side, for good or ill.
TRRT stands firmly behind its methodical approach to accessing information properly to ensure factual, credible reporting and sharing that information with our readers to raise awareness of issues as they arise. We will not rush to publish unverified material we have pursued to verify legally for so long. Doing so would not be in the best interest of our newspaper, our readers or the principles of the new FOIA law.
The 21st century has hoisted change upon us all, and those changes have necessitated a change in the way journalists must do their jobs. We are no longer the keepers or producers of the news. At our best these days, we are facilitators of greater understanding and keepers of the public trust.
Perhaps Williams surmised this point best when he wrote: “I believe that the journalism which succeeds best—and best deserves success…seeks to give every man a chance and, as far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance.”
Fighting for that “equal chance,” TRRT encourages readers to continue to pressure the district to comply with FOIA law and release the letter the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor has twice ruled should be released. Write, e-mail and/or call your school board member and attend the next school board meeting at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 14, in Room 202 of the Administration Building, 201 S. Madison St., Rockford. Following is contact information for all Rockford Board of Education members:
Lisa Jackson, Sub District A—2007 Arthur Ave., 61101; firstname.lastname@example.org; (815) 375-0175
Jeanne Westholder, Sub District B—1123 North Ave., 61103-6123; email@example.com; (815) 963-9654
Alice Saudargas, Sub District C—1412 Halsted Road, 61103; firstname.lastname@example.org; (815) 877-4243
Jude Makulec, Sub District D—4913 Birch Ave., 61114; email@example.com; (815) 633-6818
Robert Evans, Sub District E—602 Coolidge Place, 61107; firstname.lastname@example.org; (815) 226-4175
Harmon Mitchell, Sub District F—2514 Mandrake Drive, 61108; email@example.com; (815) 399-0710
David Kelley, Sub District G—3456 Dallas Road, 61109; firstname.lastname@example.org; (815) 874-6345
Thank you for your readership, and thank you for believing in us and supporting our efforts. Those efforts are for all of us.
Assistant Editor Brandon Reid contributed to this editorial.
Following are links to TRRT‘s coverage of its attempts to obtain the letter:
• District 205 battles to keep unflattering letter private, Oct. 6-12, 2010, issue of TRRT
• District 205 challenges Public Access Council’s ruling, continues battle to keep unflattering letter from public, Oct. 13-19, 2010, issue of TRRT
• District 205 yet to release unflattering letter, Oct. 20-26, 2010, issue of TTRT
• Board of Education says little about battle over unflattering letter, Nov. 3-9, 2010, issue of TRRT
• Editorial: Public must take stand in battle for unflattering letter, Nov. 3-9, 2010, issue of TRRT
• IPA, TRRT file suit against District 205, LaVonne Sheffield, posted Nov. 3 under Happening Now
• Preliminary hearing in IPA, TRRT suit against District 205 Feb. 2, Nov. 10-16, 2010, issue of TRRT
• Taxpayers demand accountability from school district, Nov. 10-16, 2010, issue of TRRT
• Sheffield responds to ‘Rumor Tuesday’ at Nov. 9 Board of Education meeting, posted Nov. 10 under Happening Now
• A note about the Hardy letter, posted Nov. 22 under Happening Now
• Editorial: The responsibility of credible reporting and the public trust, Nov. 24-30, 2010,
• District 205 releases Hardy, Sheffield letters, posted Nov. 24 under Happening Now
From the Nov. 24-30, 2010 issue