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Tough questions or not, public officials need to answer them

"As an agricultural reporter, my job is to report the news."

Reporters notebook and pen
Reporters gather the news that readers have the right to know.
Agweek
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As a private, introverted person by nature and a journalist by profession, earlier in my journalistic career, my personality and my job responsibilities were at odds with one another.

On one hand, I understood the desire by sources to withhold details about their lives and professions that they weren’t comfortable with sharing with tens of thousands of readers.

But on the flip side, I knew that it was my responsibility as a reporter to ask the “hard” questions, even if the sources I wanted to interview didn’t want to answer them.

After nearly 40 years reporting the news — much of that time, agricultural news — I am comfortable interviewing people regardless of the questions I have to ask them. Experience has taught me that the worst thing that can happen when I ask a question is that the interviewee won’t answer it.

I also have discerned over the years when to press people to be more forthcoming. If the person is a private citizen I am interviewing for a feature story, I step back from a question that makes him or her uncomfortable, and pursue it later after he or she has become more confident talking to me. If they still decline to comment, I move on because I respect the person’s decision to not share that information.

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Meanwhile, if the source is someone I’m interviewing for a story about agricultural policy or some other “hard news,” I’ll press them for the answer because I believe it’s pertinent to the story. If they still refuse, then I will stop asking because it’s their right as private citizens to do that.

When I interview farmers or ranchers, for example, who decline to tell me the number of acres they farm or the number of cattle in their herds, I don’t press them for an answer if I’m writing a feature story about their operations. If I’m writing a news story about how government policy affects them, I’ll explain to them that sharing with me details about their operations is pertinent because the information illustrates how the policy affects the people impacted by it. But if the sources still don’t want to answer after I give them that explanation, while I may not like their decision, I respect it.

However — and it’s a big “however” — when I interview sources who are public servants about projects they have championed or who is supporting projects that benefit from taxpayers' money, I don’t take “no” for an answer without pursuing the question by asking it in several different ways and reminding the source that the public has a right to know what their response is.

If they still won’t answer, I include that in my story so readers know that Agweek has done its due diligence reporting the story, but the sources are dodging the questions.

Over the years, most of the time, representatives of agricultural companies, including many in the private sector, have been forthcoming with their answers to tough questions I’ve asked because they know that the people in their communities not only are interested in their successes and failures, but also are impacted by them. They understand that answering the questions is an important part of maintaining their credibility and the trust of community members.

That’s why the resistance I’ve run into during the past year when I’ve been reporting on a couple of new agricultural manufacturing companies — one of them still working to get off of the ground and the other experiencing numerous problems during start-up — has evoked considerable head-shaking from my end. Both companies were touted by the city’s economic developers and by city officials, and community members have a stake in their success or failure.

From the local government officials involved in the projects to the leaders of the companies, though, I’ve hit numerous brick walls while reporting. Many of the individuals involved with the projects have not been forthcoming with information, including phone numbers and emails for the company leadership, have not responded to emails that asked questions, and have refused to answer questions when I finally did reach someone.

Meanwhile, public officials involved in the projects repeatedly have pointed out, at public meetings, the success of existing agricultural companies in the community as examples of how important the new ones will be to the area economy and the marketing opportunities they will offer to farmers.

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It apparently doesn’t occur to the public officials that part of those companies’ successes has resulted from gaining the trust of the community through being transparent about the way they do business, responding to the concerns of the public and being available to the media to answer questions, even if they would rather not do so.

As an agricultural reporter, my job is to report the news and not weigh in on whether a project or company should or should not exist. The questions I ask are not a judgment for or against them. I believe that providing forthright answers that I and other members of the media can report is their duty. The people — in this case Agweek readers — have a right to know.

Ann Bailey lives on a farmstead near Larimore, N.D., that has been in her family since 1911. You can reach her at 218-779-8093 or abailey@agweek.com.

Opinion by Ann Bailey
Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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