Priority One: Get It Right
I have been on both sides of the perpetual and often interesting relationship between the media and government. I served one term on the Frederick City Board of Aldermen, during which I was a favorite subject for local coverage, particularly print media.
I am now into my third year as a Frederick County commissioner; and, as the president of the board, I am the focus of more than my share of media reports. No complaints, I know it comes with the territory.
And I have been involved in broadcast media as an employee of WFMD/930AM, and I am now radio talk show host on that station. I have interviewed many elected officials and other government employees, and I think I know uniquely what it means to be on either side of these conversations.
I have to say that for the most part I find local media in Frederick County to be responsible, and usually fair. Obviously, sometimes they print or broadcast something that I would not consider either responsible or fair; but sometimes we all do things that are a little out of character and which don’t necessarily reflect our general and overriding philosophy.
I understand that local print media has one overriding mission: to sell newspapers and/or advertising. Sometimes this goal of the local papers may conflict with their other obligation, which is to be fair to all concerned. In these cases, many times I think the mission to generate revenue has overridden fairness concerns; but, again, I understand that is part of the game.
One thing, though, that I can never give the media a pass on is publishing or broadcasting material which is obviously and blatantly factually incorrect. I understand that the media’s opinions are just that, opinions. They’re entitled to theirs just as you’re entitled to yours and I am entitled to mine.
But the facts are not quite so flexible. Generally, a fact is a fact, and a newspaper has an obligation to verify it before printing it, and broadcast media has an obligation to check facts before broadcasting content. This sounds pretty simple, but lately I’ve noticed some backsliding in this regard.
A perfect example was Tuesday morning’s Frederick News-Post. The editorial page editor printed a letter which stated, apparently as a “fact,” that Frederick County had spent $30 million of its budgeted $36 million for snow removal this winter. The obvious tenor of the letter was to question how leaders of the county could manage to spend so much money on snow removal in such a mild winter.
Now, I know that this is not an earthshaking issue. This error was easily correctable; in fact, the newspaper printed a corrective statement from me the next day. I applaud them for doing it so quickly.
But that does not explain how this letter got published in the first place. The idea that Frederick County, or any county, would have spent $30 million in snow removal this winter is so absurd that anyone who read that before publication should have at least raised a question.
All anyone had to do was call anyone in the county budget office, or even call me, and the matter could have been straightened out. The truth of the matter is that we have spent something over $586,000 in snow removal this winter, a little more than half of what has been budgeted. And winter is almost over; and, assuming we get no major late season events, we will not only have unspent budgeted funds, but we will not touch a million dollar reserve that we also set aside to cover us in the event of an overly harsh winter season.
It just scares me that when a newspaper starts carelessly printing items that are so far from the truth that anyone with a lick of common sense could question it, that it calls into question the integrity of everything that they publish.
Admittedly, this was a minor matter and mistakes do happen. But will the next major mistake relate to something that is more important and actually cause unnecessary pain and anguish?
Let’s hope we don’t find out. Hopefully this minor incident has served as a wakeup call.