There are usually two sides to every story and sometimes you need a third party to settle a dispute.
That was the case when The Lebanon Reporter and Zionsville Times Sentinel called in Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt to render a decision on what is considered, by law, to be public information. We felt the written law was quite clear and were confident that Britt would side with the newspapers.
As it turns out, he did and The Lebanon Reporter and Zionsville Times Sentinel once again have access to the same information they have had access to for decades — through numerous Boone County sheriffs, city and town police chiefs and state police agencies.
Legislators have decided what is and is not public information. History has shown that it can be very dangerous to allow various individuals to make those calls.
Since Britt handed down his decision, there has been a plethora of misinformation spread and rumors are running rampant.
The Lebanon Reporter and Zionsville Times Sentinel have routinely received calls for service for local law enforcement from Boone County Central Communications, which falls under the direction of the sheriff, and this is the information used to produce Boone Beat, the police blotter and various news stories. The newspapers have never received all of the information required by law, but it didn’t hinder the publishing of the news, so it wasn’t challenged.
In May, that changed when Sheriff Mike Nielsen cut the flow of public information altogether. The newspapers objected and then began receiving heavily redacted service logs, some in which entire pages were blacked out. Information on who, what, when and where was omitted more often than not and for a good three months while Britt was investigating, that information was not available to the public. You did not know when crimes were committed in your neighborhoods because we often did not have the information to inform you.
Contrary to the rumor mill, there was no information leaked by the newspaper. The only information printed was public information, the calls for service log that we receive daily, made readily available to all media outlets.
The sheriff and county attorney argued to the public access counselor that news of a murder should not have been reported on because an arrest had not been made. Logic tells us that if we waited on an arrest to be made before reporting on a murder, the public would have no knowledge of the Delphi murders of Liberty German and Abigail Williams in 2017. Arrests may still be made in the 2018 murder of Boone County Deputy Jake Pickett. Should we not have reported on that? Murders often go unsolved for years and sometimes they’re never solved. Would you prefer not to know about them?
Britt’s decision does not change the game for the community at all. It merely puts things back to where they were for generations.
HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws are in place for a reason. HIPAA laws were designed to provide privacy standards to protect patients’ medical records and other health information provided to health plans, doctors, hospitals and other health care providers. There are severe financial penalties for violating such laws. There is no correlation between following public information laws and following HIPAA laws. The public access counselor’s decision does not change those laws at all. That is simply misdirection meant to scare the public.
Likewise, we do not print sensitive case information, patient runs, juvenile information or the other “what ifs” that are circulating. The public access counselor’s decision does not give the media access to anything that it did not already have.
We at The Lebanon Reporter and Zionsville Times Sentinel, and media outlets in general, try to be very sensitive to families during a crisis or an untimely death. Unfortunately, we have had several to report on lately and sometimes it’s hard to read the facts of such cases. We have been complimented on our sensitivity, sometimes missing our news deadline in order to give authorities time to make the proper notification.
When there is a death, law enforcement has the unfortunate task of notifying family members. They generally withhold identifying information from the media until that family notification has been made. Once the family has been notified, the information is released and published in newspapers and shared on radio and TV news sites and social media.
What many fail to understand is that your law enforcement officials are going to notify the next of kin — a parent, spouse, adult child, sibling. They cannot, and should not, be expected to notify cousins, neighbors, ex-spouses, old girlfriends, high school chums, and everyone the deceased has ever known. Those notifications are left up to the next of kin and it is their decision who to notify and when to do so.
So you may in fact read in the newspaper about the death or injury of someone you care about. That is unfortunate, but it is the definition of news.
In cases where the media already knows the names of victims, most media outlets will still withhold that until next of kin can be notified or a reasonable effort has been made to do so. But families cannot request the media to hold off on printing information for four or five days so as not to spoil a planned family gathering or other special event. That is the opposite of what we do here and it’s just not how life works.
News reporters are often on site of a tragedy and know intimate details, but hold off on reporting all information until proper notifications can be made or because it could hinder the police investigation. That was the case following a recent drowning of a young child here. While we had the information and many in the community already had the information and had shared it on social media, we made the decision to hold off on printing it, despite receiving phone calls and emails from the public seeking information. We did not print names until an official press release from authorities released those names to all media outlets.
Most law enforcement officials in the county understood the newspapers' decision to push the issue of receiving the service logs, and many aided us by providing the information themselves. For this, we are appreciative and believe our readers are as well.
You should know if there is a string of burglaries in your neighborhood. You should know if there is a murderer on the loose. You should be aware of what is going on in order to protect yourself, your family and your belongings.
Of course it’s difficult to read about a family member or friend who has gotten into trouble or had a tragedy. We realize that because many of us have also had a family member or friend in a similar situation. We don’t have the luxury of playing favorites and keeping certain names out of the paper.
We at The Lebanon Reporter and Zionsville Times Sentinel are very appreciative of our first responders and take pride in the strong relationships and trust we have built. Boone County is blessed to have such professional and caring police, fire and medical personnel in all of our communities.
I believe we all share the same goal of keeping the community safe. I also believe that an informed community is a safe community.
We have so many good things happening in Boone County and those are the stories we enjoy covering. Unfortunately, we have to cover the bad things as well.
Here’s hoping this controversy is behind us now and that the good news continues to outweigh the bad.
Kathy Linton is editor of The Lebanon Reporter and the Zionsville Times Sentinel. Reach her by emailing to email@example.com.