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Why are we reporting? (04/03/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

One of the tactics detractors of the Winona Post use to try to criticize our news coverage is to insist that our reporters “Interview the person you are writing an article about before printing,” (Ruth Marg) or “Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them an opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing,” (Steve Schild quoting the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics).

These people and others in their camp use this tactic to try to convince our readers that the Winona Post and its reporters are not doing a professional job in covering public meetings, mostly school board meetings.

But when a Post reporter covers an open meeting of a public body, she is there to be the eyes and ears of the public, not to interview the participants. Meetings of City Council, County Board and School Board can be (dare I say it?) tedious at times, and most of our readers don’t go to those meetings, or even watch them on television, unless they have a specific vested interest in what will be transpiring.

The Winona Post news department, however, goes to all of these meetings, and condenses three or four hours of city, county or school board business into easily digestible stories about what went on. In fact, we are often thanked when we are out and about in the community for our superior and thorough coverage of local government. We feel, as do many others, that government entities require our attention, and that citizens need to know how their tax money is being spent and their lives affected by the business of government.

Some public figures are shocked when they see in print what they have said in a public meeting. First, they often think that they had expressed themselves much more eloquently than they had in fact. And second, they are often discomfited to see that they appear differently than they had hoped — more strident, less sure, more dismissive, etc. It’s very much like seeing certain snapshots of yourself; they upset your self-image.

But our reporters are there to tell the reader what happened, not to sugar coat what has occurred, nor to change what people have said into something more palatable. Certainly, they would not interview after a meeting to give the players a chance to change what they have said in the official business of the meeting. It is what happens at the meeting, what is said, how the vote goes, that determines the future direction a government body takes. It is how the elected official behaves while doing official business that concerns the public, not how he presents himself while campaigning or when the words spoken are not transcribed into the legal minutes of a meeting.

Winona Post reporters take voluminous notes at meetings, and strive to take down quotes word for word. Many times we will ask for a copy of the official tape of the meeting to check our accuracy, and when it is called for, we will run a correction.

But the Winona Post and its reporters look with pride to the fact that our reporting galvanizes and involves the community in its local governments. We do more than cover public meetings. It was the Winona Post that uncovered a $5.2 million “building fund” accumulated by the County but never approved by the County Board. It was the Winona Post that kept the public eye on a “Minnesota Flip” public-private wind turbine project that eventually failed, costing the County $150,000. The County is still hoping to be reimbursed for about $90,000 of that by the unnamed private owners of the turbines.

But unfazed by the Post’s attempt to save the taxpayers’ money, County Commissioner Dwayne Voegli complained about the Winona Post’s diligent reporting on those stories, accusing the Post of not being a “serious newspaper,” and among “institutions that purport to be newspapers.”

Certain parties vilified the Winona Post when it uncovered the fact that Winona Senior High School teachers led students on a trip to Europe, even though they had not raised enough money to cover its costs. It was also on that trip that a student encountered a serious problem that went unnoticed by the chaperones, employees of the school district. But one school board member did not thank the Winona Post for uncovering such malfeasance, saying, “The choir trip that made the paper, that concerns me because some of these things can be handled in-house before the media gets it…” And then she went on to thank the Winona Post’s competition for not running the story.

But you know that the Winona Post does not exist to make fans of politicians and government employees (although we have many fans among those groups), and we know that we will always attract disparaging comments from those upset that unwanted light has suddenly been shined on their actions. We exist because this country has the constitutional right to a free press, which we use to keep watch on our local governmental bodies and ensure that they do business in the clear light of day. And we use it to ensure that the public is informed about the actions of their government so they can in turn act to protect their own rights. 


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