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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: I would tell you about this letter, but I'm not available

By Tom Warhover
November 5, 2010 | 5:25 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Here's a journalism standby: "They weren’t available for comment."

If you’re older than my doddering cat, you’ve read the phrase a few hundred times in news articles.

The translation from journalese: “Hey, we know we’re missing quotes from the other side(s), but we made the attempt.”

Skeptical readers and sources might ask: How hard did you really try?

In olden days — that is, when a web was the domain of spiders and lies — editors quizzed reporters and sources complained to editors. It all happened out of sight.

No more.

The response today is public. We’re all a part of the evolving stream of news.

Tuesday night, an article about the defeat of the Taser ban proposal said this: "Representatives of the Columbia Police Department and the Columbia Police Officers Association did not respond to requests for comment."

Wednesday morning Tom Dresner replied in the article’s comments section.

“This is untrue,” the never shy deputy chief of police wrote. He went on to say he had not been contacted about results that night. Information officer Jill Wieneke wrote much the same.

Reporter Dan Claxton made changes to the article, including a statement from the officers’ association that came in after deadline, and explained the sequence of events in a comment of his own.

The exchange will hardly go down as momentous in the history of journalism. I think it’s important, though.

News is not linear. The flow of information moves among many people — sources, readers, journalists — and not one way.

We can see the evolution. Everything is more public. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What probably won’t change is the tension between sources and reporters about those “wouldn’t respond” or “not available” references.

For example:

Reporter Ayla Kremen is working on an article about lactation rooms at MU .

The election piece was urgent; this one isn’t.

She has had plenty of interviews but is still missing a key player at the MU administration level.

“I’ve been quite the annoying reporter,” Kremen wrote. “Every day I've called once or twice and left phone messages. I've e-mailed once a day and I even dropped by the other day, only to be told that there was nobody there who could talk to me about it at the time.”

She could file the article with a “did not respond” attached to a name. Or she could keep trying — but for how long?

Reporters want the most complete article possible; wouldn’t anyone? But at some point they have to let go and publish what’s available.

If the article publishes without a response, Kremen should say specifically that she tried to reach the official.

Then you won’t be left guessing. You’ll know the effort she made, and you can judge for yourself.

Tom

PS: Thanks to directors Joe Kinney of Heartland Burial and Cremation Society and Bruce Rice of Parker Funeral Service and Crematory for meeting with several editors Thursday morning about Missourian life stories. There were several good ideas, and I appreciate their help.

I’ll let you know as the Missourian makes more changes.