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Public vs. private is often a balancing act

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The Pioneer has received several emails and letters in response to our reporting on the June 26 incident in which a Bemidji man died after a four-hour standoff with local law enforcement. Some are published on this page.

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The responses center around The Pioneer’s decision to publish the name of the officer who shot the man, after the man allegedly pointed his rifle at law enforcement once he emerged from the home.

"Why did we print the name? What good can come from it? Did we know we’ve put that officer at risk?" That was the main theme of the responses, along with some accusations we were sensationalizing the news to sell papers.

At The Pioneer, we take our job as a vanguard of the public trust seriously. In our reporting, we strive to be fair and open to all parties involved in a story. The term ‘fair and balanced’ is thrown around loosely these days, but for true journalists, it still is a hallmark for our profession.

It is standard operating procedure for the names of officers involved in shootings to be released to the public, as the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension did in this case. It is also standard for officers to be placed on paid leave during the investigation into the shootings. And it is also common practice for newspapers and other media outlets to report this information. Why? It is the media’s responsibility to report on public information relevant to a community. Because, if media didn’t report this process, in a nutshell, you could have a law enforcement agency not being held accountable for its actions to the public it serves.

Yes, the argument goes, but you also could have just written "an officer" and not reported the name. True, but what if a certain officer was involved with several incidents, more so than the average officer will encounter in his or her career? Or if a certain arm of law enforcement had been involved in several incidents more so than other agencies? The public has a right to know these things. It is our duty to inform them.

Public servants, whether they be city employees, politicians, police and law enforcement or firefighters and some emergency personnel, all work for us, citizens and taxpayers. As such, they are held accountable for their actions that impact our lives.

If we never reported items for fear of sometimes negatively impacting a group or people or their families, we wouldn’t be doing our job of informing the public. If for say, we discovered some malfeasance at a government agency, but we decided not to run it for fear it may make the city or county look bad. Would we be doing our jobs? No, we wouldn’t, and the public would have every right to be upset with us or question our integrity.

These questions primarily are raised when it comes to government and police/law enforcement/court reporting. But it is true across the board. For example, if we didn’t report a scholarship athlete at a university was convicted of a crime and was or was not thrown off the team because it may damage the team’s reputation, again, we wouldn’t be doing our job. Taxpayers pay for that athlete to attend school.

Then there is the argument "just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD." And we deal with that daily. There is public information out there we don’t always publish; graphic sexual abuse court records or various grisly accident reports come to mind. And we make judgments on what we feel is relevant. Every day of the week.

Are we always correct? No, we are not, and many may think we were not in this case. That is OK, too. Democracy is based on an engaged citizenry and rigorous debate, as well as freedom of the press.

Sometimes, democracy isn’t pretty.

As an aside, remember that we journalists are people, too. We have spouses, children, extended family. We are not immune to the feelings of remorse, sadness, sympathy. But, like public servants, we too have jobs important to our democracy. And we take them seriously.

MATT CORY is the editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He may be reached at mcory@bemidjpioneer.com

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