My job as a journalist is to watch my government. If, when I look in, I happen to find a problem, my goal is to make the problem public and trust the public to fix it. It’s noble work, in my opinion, and I am excited to devote my life to it. However, I also operate under the assumption that if one looks closely enough at anything and anyone, our government included, one is bound to find fault. Performing responsible journalistic scrutiny without being impossible to please is a balancing act I am desperately trying to master. Perhaps you can help me.
I have been looking very closely at Boone County Family Resources, and I have reported what I have seen. In my stories, including one in this morning’s Missourian, I have given you, the reader, the best obtainable version of the truth. I have told you what’s going on at an agency that is important, well funded and usually flies under the media radar. Make no mistake, I am proud of and confident in my work.
Most taxpayers agree that it’s a bad thing when an agency doesn’t quite follow the letter of the law, especially when it operates on a annual budget of nearly $8 million in public money. Most taxpayers would agree that it’s unusual for a board to start the process to remove a member because, apparently, he has made too many waves and taken up too much time with questions. Most taxpayers would say that is bad policy.
What I’ve learned so far might be a symptom of a very sick institution, or it might just be the oversight and frustration one can find at any large, complicated governmental body. At what point does journalistic scrutiny become picking on people?
Let’s talk specifics. You know that e-mail thread I referenced in the story? Well, if you look closely, several e-mails are addressed to the entire board and there’s a discussion. I’m not a lawyer, but my suspicion is that the e-mail counts as a public meeting. The Sunshine Law says that a public body can’t have a public meeting without publicizing it 24 hours in advance. But I didn’t bring it up. I thought about doing some research to test my hypothesis and then, if it proved correct, writing a line or two about it. Then I started thinking about bosses and teachers I’ve had who, try as I might, I could never please.
Tell me*, is there more to learn at BCFR or is it time to watchdog other governmental bodies?
A different but related question: When it comes to public institutions, how big does an infraction have to be to justify a story?
*Comments from BCFR board members suggesting that it’s time to watchdog someone else will be taken as red flags.**
**I was being funny there. Or trying, anyway.
Filed under: County Government