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Gap can be wide between writer, reader

Published: Saturday, July 26, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

What we think we wrote might not be what you think you read.

What you think you said might not be what we think we heard.

Thus, the difference between imply (by the writer or speaker) and infer (by the reader or listener).

What we have here (sometimes) is a failure to communicate.

That’s only human.

TUESDAY’S EDITIONS this week included a story about a new job for recently departed Coloma Township Supervisor Deb Burke.

Readers will recall that she resigned her supervisor’s job, which she had held for 33 years, after constant problems with the township’s financial records. She took responsibility for the problems and personally paid a $3,200 fine to the state for tardy reporting.

We reported that she now is a general assistance caseworker for Berwyn Township in the Chicago suburbs.

That simple story update, which was placed on Page A3 in the print editions, elicited decidedly different reactions from readers.

“Does no one do background checks anymore?!” a reader asked in one of more than a dozen comments posted on our Facebook page.

Added another: “Illinois has limited the questions a new employer can ask previous employers. Did they not Google her though?”

We infer those comments to mean the readers thought Ms. Burke’s record as supervisor in Coloma Township would disqualify her from another township job.

Other people might agree.

BUT CERTAINLY NOT everyone agrees.

“She was not charged with anything,” an online commenter wrote. “Really what she is doing now is no one’s business.”

“Please help me to understand how this is newsworthy?” another reader wrote in a post on our online edition. “She is a private citizen now, not an elected official.

“... I certainly can read loud and clear that the paper thinks we are all supposed to believe that there is something wrong with her getting a job in another township, but I do not see this as an issue.”

That “loud and clear” message would be an inference by the reader. It certainly wasn’t implied by the story.

The story, in fact, reported that Ms. Burke “had been recognized for her expertise in providing assistance to the poor, which is a key function of township.”

Our report also noted that her new boss was familiar with Ms. Burke and the Coloma Township situation. Still, she said, “Deb knows her stuff and does a good job,” we reported.

We think our reporting, from the beginning, has been accurate, as well as fair to Ms. Burke.

THIS NEWSPAPER has covered the financial problems in Coloma Township for many months because newspapers are supposed to keep an eye on the performance of public officials in the conduct of their official duties – especially when it comes to the handling of public funds.

We think our journalistic obligation also fully justifies the reporting we have done since last fall on Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn and his use of local government money.

Our reporting has always attempted to give Ms. Burke and Mr. Harn the opportunity to comment or respond.

Like it or not, their elected positions and official conduct have given them a prominence that makes them newsworthy figures – especially as they continue to be government employees: she with Berwyn Township, he with Forrestville Valley School District.

We wish them well in their new positions.

BUT THEIR NAMES will continue to come up in news coverage from time to time – as Coloma Township deals with some of the issues Ms. Burke left behind, and as Ogle County completes a forensic audit amid financial reorganization in the sheriff’s department.

Those news reports will involve accurate information that we believe readers want and need to know.

The news will just be the news. Whether it’s “bad” or “good” will depend on each reader’s perspective.

Some people will welcome the “watchdog” coverage of local government.

Others who don’t find the reporting newsworthy might question the motives of the newspaper.

That’s journalism.

TWO WEEKS AGO, the headline on this column read, Don’t be tricked into voting in November.

What did you infer from that? Were people being discouraged from voting?

The Facebook following was mixed.

“This guy ought to be fired,” one commenter wrote about the editor.

Another suggested this weekly column is intended to provoke thought.

Loyal readers of this newspaper (and this column) know we always encourage voting.

We publish voter registration information, provide lists of polling places, and write editorials urging people to exercise their right to choose government leaders.

People ought to vote because they are familiar with the candidates and the issues, not because they have been tricked into going to the polls by some special interest referendum issue that was designed purely to push their buttons.

That’s what the editor thought his column said.

But some people didn’t read it that way.

Thus, the difference between imply and infer.

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