I suspect every journalist who covers small-town local government has heard it about a million times.
“Don’t put that in the paper,” they say, after making a statement during a public meeting.
They might be elected officials, city staff members, or residents.
Some of them might think adding this disclaimer after making an absurd remark will magically keep it out of the paper.
Others know it won’t prevent publication, but consider themselves great comedians for telling reporters not to put things in the paper, as if they were the first one to think of it.
As a public service, I will attempt to clarify the matter once and for all. Statements made in a public meeting are public.
It won’t do any good to ask a journalist not to put public information in the paper.
And, just for the record, it isn’t especially funny, either. The open meeting law and the public’s right to know are serious things.
This is not to suggest that we publish every ridiculous comment we hear in public meetings.
As one who has covered more than my share of public meetings over the years, I can testify I have heard some ludicrous things.
I’ve been exposed to comments ranging from misinformed, to confused, to just plain bizarre, made by elected officials and others.
Some people seem to have no filter at all. They say whatever is on their mind, and what is on their mind can be disturbing. I have often wondered, if people say the questionable things they do in public meetings, what do they say in private, when reporters with notebooks and digital recorders are not present?
I have not, however, quoted all these people in the paper just because I could.
I have ignored some comments simply because they were banal, while others didn’t add anything to the meeting.
If it was our intention to publicly embarrass people, we could do so without working up a sweat. There is plenty of material available.
Our goal, however, is to provide a reasonable account of the meeting, and provide readers (many of whom are taxpayers) with a picture of the actions their elected officials have taken.
In doing this, we exercise a certain amount of restraint.
We are cognizant of the fact elected officials are not professional politicians (for which we are grateful) or trained orators.
We overlook small malapropisms, and all but the most egregious blunders.
Our goal is not to make things so hot for local officials that no one will seek office.
We want and need talented people to step up and serve as elected representatives.
On the other hand, if someone says something in a public meeting that is unusual, or noteworthy that residents should know about, there’s a good chance we’re going to report it, and saying “don’t put that in the paper” won’t have any bearing on that decision.
As journalists, we take our role seriously because we believe decisions made in a public forum are better than those made behind closed doors. It’s our job to shine a light on elected officials to help ensure they are abiding by the open meeting law and other rules that keep them accountable.
I can offer one clear and simple solution for anyone who wishes to avoid being embarrassed when quoted in the paper: if you don’t want to look bad in print, don’t say stupid things in public meetings, including “don’t put that in the paper.”