A divorce is finalized, but it is not recorded in the newspaper until four months later.
Someone appears in court for a domestic assault, but the sentence isn’t reported until weeks after the fact.
The subjects naturally raise two questions: What constitutes these items as news? Why is there such a delay in the report?
These instances, and many more, occurred during my tenure as editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. Other editors can likely relate.
Our simplest answer to readers is that divorces and court news are public records under Minnesota law. That is probably the case in most jurisdictions. Ambulance runs, marriages and divorces, traffic tickets, court fines – they all fall under the realm of public information and their publication regularly raised the eyebrows of readers, especially of those directly affected.
Individuals often will challenge publication of a specific record and present what they consider justification for withholding publication. Some arguments may have merit.
From our newspaper’s perspective, however, we strived to treat all public records the same. As we explained, it’s difficult to place a newspaper in the position of being judge and jury – trying to determine who has a valid argument for withholding information and who does not.
Yes, individuals may disagree with the fact that newspapers choose to print public records. But editors should expect readers would be much more critical – and legitimately so – if records were selectively published. A policy riddled with double standards is no policy at all.
Any right to publish records has an accompanying responsibility. Readers should expect newsrooms to do everything possible to ensure timely reports.
Public records often are of sensitive nature – a divorce, a bankruptcy, a court sentence. The circumstances can be stressful for individuals and the report of the item draws more attention. Delayed publication can unnecessarily aggravate a situation.
Ensuring punctual reports involves two steps. Newspapers, unfortunately, have varying degrees of control.
First is the release of the information from the appropriate agency. The process often has built-in delays, and it’s something that is out of newspapers’ hands. Newsrooms should work with officials to get the information as soon as possible.
Editors do, however, control how soon the information gets published once received. Most newsrooms can likely improve on the turnaround.
It’s common for readers to ask newspapers why they stand firm on access to and publication of specific public records. It’s much like the proverbial “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” If the press agrees to one concession, all too often an individual or agency will try to stretch the rules. Soon laws are enacted with additional restrictions on what once was routinely public data.
Readers are best served by a full menu of public data rather than a selective serving.