A Local Newspaper Squeaks

Local newspapers like the nearby Janesville Gazette often self-servingly contend that they’re like the last oasis before a news desert. It’s closer to the truth to say they’re a contributor to an increasingly arid local climate.

Even stories that reveal some information hold back from readers other key documents that would aid in fuller understanding of a controversy. For the Gazette, this typically involves requesting public records but refusing to publish what they’ve received so readers could assess a controversy fully for themselves. See The Janesville Gazette‘s Sketchy Reporting on Major Topics and A Local Press Responsible for Its Own Decline.

A recent story about students forming an ‘offensive symbol’ on a school floor in Milton, Wisconsin reveals that the symbol was a swastika, but publishes none of the public records the paper received that would better inform readers about how officials reacted and handled the matter. Instead, the Gazette shares only a few sentences from – by the Gazette’s own account – 85 pages of documents. See Antisemitism expert: Milton should be more direct in handling of swastika incident. (Pierce, reporter; Schwartz, editor.)

Failure to publish the records that one receives in full – records that under Wisconsin law are part of an established process with opportunities for vetting before disclosure (Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31 et seq.) – shortchanges readers and tells government that full disclosure is unlikely.

When a publication requests documents but does not publish them in full, officials hear only a mouse’s squeak.

The better practice: one requests under law, defends the request at law, and publishes the results in exercise of one’s rights by law.

Anything less signals to government that documents will be presented selectively and that residents will be informed only partially.

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