Guest Columnist and reporter for the Bellevue Herald-Leader and the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press

When is a story finished?

When all the questions are answered.

It’s one of the first things you learn in journalism school. Ask who, what, where, when, why and how.

Often for a journalist working on a news story, getting answers to these questions is simple and results in one comprehensive story. Then we move on to another.

Other times, information is withheld, public officials won’t talk, and public records requests are employed to learn facts, which then lead to more questions. And the cycle repeats.

And that is why stories of how an emergency call involving the assistant Jackson County attorney has been in this newspaper regularly since mid-April.  

For people who feel we are beating a dead horse or are obsessed with this story, I understand. We feel that way too. If you’ve followed our reporting, you’ve seen that we have asked all the basic questions from the very beginning. Our job is to keep asking until we get all the answers to which the public is entitled.

If you need a loan, a banker is not going to give it to you until you answer very specific questions and provide verification of that information. They won’t accept the answer that you don’t feel like talking about it or you don’t see why they want to know if you have student loans or credit card debt or mortgages on property.

If your car has an engine problem and you take it to a mechanic who tells you he doesn’t think anything is wrong without even opening the hood, you aren’t going to be a very satisfied customer.  

Those are both examples of private entities. What we are writing about involves public officials and offices supported by taxpayers. If we weren’t asking these questions, we wouldn’t be doing our job, and we’d be doing you a disservice.

And if you don’t want to read these stories, you can skip over them because our newspaper contains much more. We have features about student achievements, people who quilt or collect interesting things, service groups that are undertaking projects to help others, listings of events, stories about art and music, advertising that connects you with local goods and services.

But we aren’t going to stop reporting on things we believe are of great public interest until all the questions are answered. If you are tired of this story, perhaps the public employees involved should take note.

A few months ago, I wrote a column about one of my first assignments as a young reporter in the late 1980s covering the city government of East Chicago, Indiana. Despite having studied journalism, I was unprepared to handle the bobbing and weaving I encountered trying to get even the simplest questions answered by government officials there.

I came back to the newsroom one day and told my editor something to the effect of “Councilman such and such said he didn’t really think this was much of a story, and I didn’t want to push him.”

He gave me a piercingly stern look, and said, “That’s not good enough. We owe our readers more than that, and I expect more from you.” And then he took the time to mentor me and show me how to systematically report such stories to their end.

Listen closely. Take careful notes. Verify. Get documentation for everything. Pursue public records. Be fair. Verify. Give all sides the opportunity to comment every time, even if it’s a repeated “no comment.” Keep digging until all the questions the public has the right to know are answered. Verify. Don’t stop because it is uncomfortable for you to ask questions or someone is trying to intimidate you.

What I learned then is what we do today at your hometown newspaper: we follow the same steps in pursuing a story –  Every. Single. Time.  We can’t worry about whether someone accuses us of “being mean” or trying to sensationalize something. We stay the course. Systematically report. Seek the truth.  

Is it always fun? No. Is it sometimes uncomfortable? Yes. But anything less is essentially failing our readers.