Last weekend we reported a story about the post-election performance of Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn.
Such a report would have been unnecessary had the sheriff resumed business as usual after losing his bid for re-election in the March 18 Republican primary election.
But he didn’t.
By all accounts from reliable sources, the sheriff made himself scarce for at least a month after the election.
He seldom showed up at the sheriff’s department, and he became even more difficult for the media to reach for information and comments.
That would have been unremarkable had he not ordered everyone in his department not to talk to Sauk Valley Media without his permission.
That’s no way to do public business.
And whether he likes it or not, that’s the business Mr. Harn is in.
BECAUSE OF THIS newspaper’s reporting in recent months, the sheriff has been reluctant to talk with our reporters.
We wrote about his personal use of a county-issued credit card, and the subsequent altering of credit card bills after he paid for his expenses.
We reported about the off-budget tow fund at the sheriff’s disposal, and the questionable use of some of those public funds.
We editorially urged more accountability of the tow fund and agreed with a call for a forensic audit of that account.
In response to that editorial, we published a guest column from Ogle County Board Chairman Kim Gouker, who rejected such an audit and said “an orchestrated political stunt” was behind the request.
The sheriff, on his campaign website, said the call for the audit was a “scam on taxpayers and voters” that had been “perpetuated by Sauk Valley Media.”
Now that the election is over, Gouker has agreed that a forensic audit would be a good idea to clear the air over the tow fund, which has since been turned over to the county treasurer.
Never say never.
SEVERAL ARTICLES have been published in this newspaper about Sheriff Harn.
Some before the election, some after.
Some people think we have overdone it, and they have posted comments on our website and Facebook page to mock the frequent reports on Ogle County.
We think the reporting has been journalistically justified.
The sheriff is a public official, and his performance – including his handling of public money – is a matter of public interest.
Newspapers have no greater responsibility than to cover public affairs, which include government and politics.
Mr. Harn himself needlessly brought on some of the coverage when he announced he would stop collecting towing fees for the tow fund – without the knowledge or approval of the county board, which had established the fund – and then a few days later he reversed his decision after discussing the matter with board members.
A newspaper just can’t ignore that kind of activity by local public officials.
IN OUR WEDNESDAY edition, we published a letter from a reader who was upset by our use of a confidential source in last weekend’s article about the sheriff.
“To write innuendo after innuendo, claim after claim, and allegation after allegation, and then use an anonymous source is the absolute worst kind of journalism,” he wrote.
We call them “confidential” sources because we know their identities, though we choose not to reveal the names.
To us, that is different from an “anonymous” source – an unsigned letter, or a caller who hangs up before we can ask for a name.
We do, on rare occasions and under certain conditions, extend the cloak of confidentiality to a source.
In fact, we did it this time at the suggestion of this editor.
OUR CODE OF ETHICS, officially called the Sauk Valley Media Statement of Editorial Principles, deals with confidential sourcing.
“Before information is accepted for publication without full attribution, we must make every reasonable effort to get the source on the record,” the document says. “If that is not possible, we will seek the information from another source whom we can identify publicly.
“If we do withhold a source’s name from publication, we will ask for an on-the-record reason for concealing the identity and will include that reason in the story in such a way that the source is not revealed.“
Only the executive editor or managing editor can authorize the use of a confidential source.
In this case, sheriff’s department personnel who agreed to talk with us asked for confidentiality for fear of retribution from their boss. We thought the request was reasonable, as we saw no way to get that information from someone who was willing to be identified.
Illinois is among about 40 states with “shield” laws that allow journalists to protect the identities of their sources in court.
Most news outlets, like Sauk Valley Media, seldom use such sources for attribution.
But it’s a good tool to have when important information cannot otherwise be obtained.
ALTHOUGH THE sheriff would not respond to our requests for an interview, we didn’t publish last weekend’s article without at least some of his side of the story.
We pulled information from earlier stories we had published before the election, when he had answered some of our questions.
Those earlier comments allowed us include his voice in the more recent article, which helped (we think) to keep the story from being completely one-sided. News stories can lack balance when the subject won’t talk.
Last weekend’s article also quoted sheriff-elect Brian VanVickle on matters of the transition before he assumes the office in December.
Sheriff Harn’s reluctance to talk with our reporters will not prevent us from continuing to ask – via phone message or email – for his comments when we think they are relevant to a news story.
And if he continues to decline comment, we will report that, too.