A matter of fairness
Hernando TodayThe issue: Decision not to name restaurant that may have been source of a norovirus-like outbreak that sickened at least 60.
Published: March 18, 2011
Published: March 18, 2011
Our opinion: It's a matter of fairness.
In this high-speed digital era of news organizations trying to break news first, responsibility sometimes takes a back seat in the rush to scoop the competition.
The rush to publish - or post on a website - has sometimes led to the breakdown of journalistic ethics and, therefore, the credibility the public deserves.
After all, if you can't trust what your newspaper publishes, what good is it?
Just because somebody says something doesn't necessarily make it true.
It's a journalist's responsibility to make sure the quotes and paraphrases support the facts.
When statements are made regarding one's opinion on a particular issue, that's one thing. We all see the same thing with different eyes and filter that information through different brains. It's what makes us unique.
When statements are made as fact and those statements have the potential to harm someone or his or her business, it's quite another.
If it's not true and harms someone, it's called libel and can cause irreversible damage to an individual or business.
Last Tuesday, Hernando Today was the first to tell readers a norovirus-like outbreak at a local restaurant had sickened 45 patrons. A few had to be hospitalized. Later, more than 35 others reported they also had become ill after eating at the restaurant. They contacted the health department after our story was published.
While we knew the name of the restaurant, we chose not to publish it.
That infuriated several readers, who accused us of such things as taking a payoff and, worse, that we were putting the community at risk by not publishing the name.
Neither is true.
All publishing the name of the restaurant would have done is ruined that restaurant's reputation based on hearsay and opinion, not the facts.
While it is likely the outbreak originated at the restaurant, the health department's investigation has yet to be concluded. An inspection found no contamination that confirmed the outbreak originated at the restaurant and that, with the exception of a few minor violations, found nothing at the eatery that could cause such an outbreak.
Hundreds of other patrons and employees ate at the restaurant during the same period and suffered no illness.
If there was no danger to the community from eating at the restaurant and no major health violations or ties to the outbreak were found, the only thing naming the restaurant would do is harm its reputation.
That's the basic definition of unfairness. That's what journalists should always safeguard.
If there had been any indication that continued patronage of the restaurant might endanger the community, we would have been the first to publish the name.
But that simply wasn't the case.
Vindictiveness is what led the charge to convict the restaurant before it had a fair trial in the courtroom of public opinion based on the facts supported by evidence found by the experts at the health department.
We chose to wait for the health department's final analysis as to whether we would name the restaurant. We believe it showed high ethical and journalistic standards.
If the restaurant is found by the health department to be where the outbreak originated, we will publish the restaurant's name. If it wasn't the source, we were conscientious in our efforts and, more importantly, fair.
Until then, we'll stick with what's made credible newspapers in this country the most trusted source of information for the past 200-plus years.
Our credibility means more to us and our readers than whether we were the first news organization to name a restaurant that could turn out to be the scapegoat in this norovirus-like outbreak.