Thursday, September 17, 2009

Share the Story, Share the Blame!

Information sharing in this day and age can be a tricky thing. I found that out recently when I received an e-mail from someone who was disappointed that we carried some names in a story about a murder-suicide apparently before the names were officially released. The last thing I want to do is be the bearer of bad tidings to a family before they are notified through official channels. How I made that mistake takes a little explaining.

We share stories with about six other radio stations in the state, the Associated Press, and the Wisconsin Radio Network. Consequently we use stories that others share with us. Such was the case involving a couple from Horicon. You know what they say about assuming. Well I didn’t see a problem with the information I got from another station we share stories with. Now that I think back on it I probably know where they got their information.

The Dodge and Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Departments are kind enough to send us copies of their daily logs each day. Each log contains information from calls for service. Some times it’s brief, but can contain names and addresses that aren’t generally shared with the public. There’s an implied understanding that sensitive information shouldn’t be passed along without first checking with the law enforcement agency. That’s usually in cases involving crimes or accidents in which a person or people are killed or injured. Or for that matter someone commits a crime, but hasn’t been charged yet. Discretion comes into play.

I’ve seen radio and television stations, and newspapers use information from those logs as sources for a story. Anyone that’s ever heard a drama unfold on a police radio knows that you should wait until the smoke clears before you start using details that are uttered or written in the heat of the moment. The logs I’m sent I typically use as leads or to confirm details I’ve already gotten about a story. When a propane tanker recently overturned on a Fond du Lac County highway I heard the original call on a scanner, called a Sheriff’s Captain to confirm, and later when writing the story I checked back on the Sheriff’s log from the morning to get the time of call.

Over the years I’ve learned enough to know that whatever story you do it’s bound to have an impact on someone listening to it or reading it. If it concerns a death, I’m more than willing to wait until the family has been notified by law enforcement. However some of my colleagues aren’t. So if they are a bit premature in their reporting and they share the story with me, then we’re both to blame. Anyone who browses the Internet can you tell you there’s a lot of information available. The danger is it may not be correct or worse ethical.

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