Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Media Day At the Law Firm

Last Friday, I filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Marion County Coroner who had had his pay withheld by the Indianapolis City County Council since March for not completing a training course. The lawsuit basically involved a couple dry technical legal issues. First, we argued in the complaint that the training statute was not intended to apply retroactively to coroners in office elected before the law was passsed. Second, we said that since the county coroner's office was established by the constitution, any changes in qualifications for that office had to be done by constitutional amendment, not by a simple statute.

The media, however, did not find it to be a dry issue. On Tuesday, I found myself being interviewed on-air by Pam Elliot of WISH-TV and Norman Cox of WRTV. I also received a call requesting information from the Indianapolis Star. The article appeared this morning.

After media day at the law firm, I was reminded of a class I used to teach called "Media and Politics." Basically it was a class that taught the basics regarding how the media operates and how political candidates and elected officials should handle the media.

The explosion of the internet has considerably changed the relationship between media and politics since I taught Media & Politics in the mid-1990s. However, a basic rule of civility still applies. Many elected officials make the mistake of treating reporters with hostility or disdain because they think the reporters exist simply to make public official's life difficult or expose negative information. Quite often that is what they're trying to do. But treating the reporter with contempt or appearing as if you have something to hide, may well make a negative story worse.

Regardless of whether you like the person doing the story or want the story covered, the reporter should be treated with respect. Writing stories and scripts under looming deadlines is an incredibly difficult job. If you make their job easier by cooperating by returning calls and trying to answer the questions they have, you will cultivate an environment of respect that will result in better coverage, if not on the story at hand, in the future.

Of course, I approach things from a philosophy of open government. I am a huge believer in open records and public access to government documents and meetings. When I was at the the newly-formed Title Insurance Division at the Department of Insurance, we were inventing the wheel when it came to regulating the title insurance industry. I used to tell my staff that as we developed our plans for regulation of the industry, we needed to do so in full view of the public and be open to input and criticism from those we regulate. I told them, if we're doing things in secret because you don't want the public or the industry to know, we're doing the wrong thing.

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