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Getting the facts ... and missing them

By Gregory Flannery · May 4th, 2008 · On Second Thought
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Kevin Osborne's April 23 Porkopolis column ("Streicher's Slippery Hold on the Facts") is the kind of rigorous reporting that exemplifies the adversarial relationship that sometimes exists between journalists and police.

"Adversarial" doesn't have to mean "hostile" -- the American judiciary system, for example, is purposefully adversarial. But in some cases, especially, when it comes to the leadership of the Cincinnati Police Department answering questions from reporters at CityBeat, hostility is exactly what prevails.

Osborne's column analyzes Police Chief Tom Streicher's statements about the use of a police honor guard for his aunt's funeral and points out inconsistencies with police department procedure. Osborne's approach is interesting in part because of the savvy methodology he employs.

The Ohio Public Records Act requires most government agencies to surrender most public records on demand -- everything from phone bills to detectives' interrogation notes to payroll records. But the law does not require government agencies to answer questions from the public, including reporters.

Streicher has the same freedom of speech as the rest of us, and for many years he has exercised his right not to speak to CityBeat. He went so far as to throw CityBeat reporter Stephanie Dunlap out of a press conference a few years ago.

Osborne used the Public Records Act to force information from the police department. "Force" is the right word, because the police have been anything but compliant when CityBeat requests public records, law or no law.

The rights that newspapers have under the Public Records Act are like any other rights that U.S. citizens have: They're as strong as your ability to defend them in court. Suing the police every time they fail to comply with the law is simply too expensive.

Instead one requests documents, badgers if necessary and hopes the police department will obey the law. In this case, it did.

"CityBeat eventually got a reply," Osborne wrote.

Osborne got what he needed to show, namely that Streicher's explanation for using police personnel, equipment and horses for his aunt's funeral is less than credible. The article performed the essential task of journalism: checking the veracity of what government officials say. Getting it in writing helps.

Of course, having something in writing doesn't guarantee that a journalist will get the facts right. I am proof of that.

My most recent On Second Thought column took note of the fact that Cincinnati media seemed ignorant of the presence of refugee Tibetan monks in Colerain Township, despite worldwide attention to protests by Tibetan Buddhists. I was wrong.

Karen Vance reported on the local monks in a news brief in The Cincinnati Enquirer on April 11, a week before my column appeared.

My first editor, Dennis Nichols, used to say, "Don't report what you think you know. Report the facts."

He was right.


CONTACT GREGORY FLANNERY: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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