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Telling 'the rest of the story' isn't as simple as it seems

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By JEFF WEBB, Hernando Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002


Like durable AM-radio personality Paul Harvey, superintendent Wendy Tellone wants to tell "the rest of the story."

But unlike the case with Harvey's syndicated broadcast, I can't wait to hear Tellone's version.

Tellone recently announced that she will begin to use the school district's Web site (www.hcsb.k12.fl.us/) to combat the "misinformation," or at least the lack of complete information, reported by the two daily newspapers circulating in Hernando County.

What prompted Tellone's recent decision apparently was her dissatisfaction with the newspapers' reporting about her much-ballyhooed strategic plan. It's been a long time in the making and, like any of us who spend time and energy on a project, Tellone is very proud of it and wants her bosses to like it, too.

Tellone criticized the newspapers for singling out a few proposed expenditures that were questionable -- extra funding for lawn maintenance workers, for example -- and allegedly taking out of context a quote by her about the intrinsic value of different employees. She says using the district's Web page is the only way she can communicate with the public and express her disagreement with what appears in the newspapers. (There are, of course, other ways, but more on that later.)

Tellone's attempt to solve a problem that other government officials have wrestled with is interesting, although unoriginal. Some have begun internal newsletters and distributed them to employees (at taxpayer expense) to rebut negative publicity or deflect legitimate criticism from the public and the press.

Former County Administrator Chuck Hetrick, for instance, eventually decided that speaking his mind in a newsletter was easier than taking the time to explain himself to reporters or editorialists.

We can all agree that the dissemination of information -- the more relevant and comprehensive the better -- benefits everyone.

Whether it's getting the word out about what's being taught in classrooms, providing details of the district's long-term goals or sharing personal information about the accomplishments of deserving employees, such exchanges build a bond between the school district and the taxpayers who read it. Tellone's Web site is an excellent way to make that connection.

If Tellone wants to use the Web site as a propaganda tool to promote her initiatives, or those of the School Board, fine. If she wants to express an opinion about a germane topic, label it as such and have at it.

But Tellone would be wise to resist using a taxpayer-funded Web site as a shield to deflect criticism or as a weapon to attack those who disagree with her decision-making.

Dispensing "truth" is not as easy as it sounds. Tellone's version is no less subjective than anyone else's, and her responsibility to do all she can to meet that ideal is just as compelling as the media's.

Newspapers are like people; we make mistakes. We try to limit errors, but they are inevitable. Sometimes we misinterpret or misstate facts. And sometimes the facts we are provided are faulty. When we learn we have erred, we set the record straight by publishing corrections.

But reasonable people recognize that, given the tens of thousands of words we print each day, they still can rely on all but a fraction to be correct. That reliability translates into credibility, and readers require us to earn that every day.

People viewing Tellone's Web site will expect no less. If she is going to portray a news report as being inaccurate, she will need to be specific about what's wrong and what's right.

Omitting information is an entirely different matter than making mistakes. Newspapers seldom have the luxury of printing full texts of speeches, meetings or reports.

A reporter's job is to gather the information, weed through the details and determine where the news is. After that, reporters try to get as many people as they can to comment.

They then present that information to readers and trust them to make their own judgments. To make it more difficult, they usually have a very limited amount of space in which to convey that. In short, newspapering is not an exact science. Neither is running a school system.

Instead of relying on her Web page to "set the record straight" or get her message across to residents, Tellone might consider writing letters to the editor or accepting our repeated invitations to author guest columns on the opinion page. Her message will reach more people, and she still can post it on her home page.

Tellone also must remember that no missive on a Web site or in a newspaper can take the place of face-to-face communication between Tellone and the employees, parents, students and taxpayers she serves. That's "the rest of the story" everyone wants to hear.

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