No matter how many columns I write about the role of newspapers in a community, I always seem to encounter yet another person who doesn’t get it. This week while covering an open meeting of an entity that uses public monies to fund its endeavors, one of the members expressed irritation over me recording the meetings. My simple answer was, “You’re in an open meeting.” I’m not sure how much clearer I can be.
Montana Code Annotated states in 2-3-211, “A person may not be excluded from any open meeting under this part and may not be prohibited from photographing, televising, transmitting images or audio by electronic or digital means, or recording open meetings.” The implication that I am somehow overstepping my bounds by recording an open meeting is absurd. Not only is it the law, but it stands to reason that a recorded event will be covered much more accurately than just my scribbled notes.
I’ve encountered so much resistance and annoyance since I started here simply for showing up, turning on my recorder and taking notes. People eye me with suspicion. They apparently assume I’m up to no good or that I’m trying to catch them with their pants down. Both of which couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’m simply doing my job.
Realistically, people in the community don’t attend meetings unless they are members of the committee or board. But that doesn’t mean people don’t deserve to know what’s going on. Open meeting laws exist for a reason. The public is entitled to information about dollars being spent and the activity of groups spending those dollars. I attend those meetings so I can relay that valuable information to people who are interested.
One of the first rules of journalism is to record everything. Not only does it allow me to be precise and accurate, but it also gives me a record of the information I collected. If someone comes back to me with a complaint of being misquoted or that information was misrepresented, I can pull out that recording as evidence of my coverage. Recording conversations makes me better at my job. I would never paraphrase someone and attribute it as a quote. That compromises my integrity and makes me untrustworthy as a journalist.
What startles me is people being so uncomfortable with a record of their conversations being kept. If someone is worried about what they say in the meeting being published, perhaps the content should be saved for a private conversation. Believe me, there are a lot of back-and-forths that never make it to the newspaper. We are not a gossip rag and my intent isn’t ever to make someone look foolish. Just because I have the right to print something doesn’t mean I do. I have to build trust and professional relationships with the people I’m covering just as much as I do with the reader.
Since starting at the Sidney Herald in May, I quickly learned I was going to have to start from scratch when cultivating relationships with the entities I covered. Many of the groups had never seen a member of the press at their meetings before. I still have an outrageous number of requests for people to have editing power over their stories, which not only goes against every ounce of journalistic integrity in the world, but it can also pose certain legal repercussions. I didn’t expect to have to start from square one at a newspaper that has served this community for over 100 years.
There are many people around the county who have graciously extended their welcome to me. Not everyone regards me as the enemy and I’m grateful for that. Because I’m not the bad guy and neither are they. We are all just people trying to do the best we can at what we love in this world. For me, that’s journalism, newspapers and free-flowing information.