No apologies

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A recent issue of the Lovely County Citizen included a lively Forum section, with several readers writing to voice their opinions. Several wrote about the paper’s recent coverage of a county election commissioner who was arrested after a bizarre incident involving an alleged false accident report that police say led to a car chase and a physical altercation.

In the course of the incident, the man is accused of throwing his own feces at the face of a law enforcement officer.

The details surrounding the incident are described at length in an incident report released by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. That document, which is a public record, served as the foundation for the story that was published both in the Lovely County Citizen and its sister paper, the Carroll County News.

I am the managing editor for both newspapers, and I stand by our reporting.

Some of those who wrote to us about the coverage felt that we were not compassionate toward the gentleman involved, or that we took extra efforts to “sensationalize” the story. Neither of those assertions is true.

I’ve met the gentleman involved in the story. As a matter of fact, I spoke with him briefly at the Eastern District Courthouse in Berryville a month or so ago, when I was covering returns from the local school elections. I’ve always found him to be pleasant and friendly, although perhaps a little eccentric. Other members of our staff, including the reporter who wrote the initial story, also have interacted with him and never found him to be anything less than pleasant and polite.

When I read the incident report, my first thought was that there were clearly some mental health issues involved. However, there was no mention of that in the incident report and no documented basis at that time for us to report on the man’s mental state. Suppose for a moment that we reported that the man was clearly mentally ill — if that turned out to be false, we would be vulnerable to a libel suit.

One of the letter writers suggested that our entire editorial staff be sent back to school to learn “basic journalism.” Well, I’ve been a professional journalist for more than 28 years. If I haven’t learned my craft in 28 years of writing, reporting and responding to both valid and misguided criticisms, it’s likely I never will. I will tell you this, though: The first lesson you learn as an aspiring journalist is that real journalism is based on facts. Not gossip, not personalities, not feelings. Not even compassion — or the lack thereof. Facts are the foundation and the building blocks of our profession.

In this instance, the facts are that a public official was arrested and accused of several criminal acts. Absolutely, the fact that human feces were allegedly involved in the story was unsettling, but that’s the fact. Had the incident report said that the man assaulted the deputy with a tire iron, or a golf club, or even a bottle filled with urine, we would have reported that. To not do so would be to fail in our primary responsibility, which is to report the facts as completely as possible and let our readers form their own opinions.

As to the question of why this particular arrest was covered in detail while others are not, the answer is very simple. The man involved was, at the time, a public official. For that reason, and that reason alone, there was news value to this story. The residents of Carroll County have a right to be informed about their public officials, and we as journalists have an obligation to inform our readers.

Many of you — perhaps most of you — who read this column will disagree with it. That’s your prerogative, but it won’t change the way we do our jobs. We have a talented, hard-working editorial staff and I am proud of the work we do. We aren’t perfect, and because we are human, we never will be. But we are committed to journalism that is objective, fact-based, accurate and complete. For that, we will never apologize.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com.