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Central Illinois Editor

Central Illinois editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

Coates

I was not surprised when my requests to speak with a Winnebago County State's Attorney Office representative on Thursday and Friday were not returned.

They've been wrestling with the media since the state's attorney there, Marilyn Hite Ross, required members of the press to complete a form if they want to interview someone.

At first glance, most of the sheet is pretty basic — contact information, how long the interview will last, etc. That's all fine.

Then there are the parts that have caused the drama, sections labeled "Interview topic/storyline," "What is the story perspective?" and "Who else are you planning to interview?"

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Another section asks the journalist to list the questions that he or she plans to pose. To a public official. Being paid by taxpayers. 

Needless to say, this approach has rattled media organizations in Winnebago County, which includes Rockford. A reporter was removed from a press conference for being audacious enough to ask something deemed “off topic.” The Illinois News Broadcasters Association, the Illinois Broadcasters Association and the Illinois Press Association sent a letter to Hite Ross questioning the control tactics.

"Your refusal to answer what you consider 'off topic' questions, culminating in the escorting of a longtime Rockford journalist from a press conference, borders on the ridiculous," wrote Don Craven, a lawyer who represents the groups. "We believe no question to a public official in a public setting is 'off limits.' "

(Full disclosure: We're an IPA member and Craven has worked on various cases for our group of newspapers.)

So why is this a big deal?

On the surface, it may seem like self-righteous indignation by the media for a straightforward request. But for members of the press, that form and the prerequisites infringe on some of our bedrock principles.

Allowing a source to know what you're going to ask and telling them your other sources for a story is bad journalism. It means we can't ask questions that haven't been reviewed. It means responses are more likely to be canned, rehearsed and not interesting. Most of all, it means we’re playing a part in public relations and not objective reporting.

This is not an issue confined to Rockford. Journalists are ignored or dodged by officials all the time.

Some of that is the nature of the business. Public officials and the press have been at odds from the very founding of our country, and I would argue we're a stronger society because of it.

Is it always pretty?

No.

Have there been missteps?

No doubt.

But one of the central parts of being a reporter is presenting questions, even off-topic ones, even ones not approved.

Brief story: When I was a young business reporter, one of the beats given to me was the bio-science sector. This was challenging for a couple reasons, the first being I was a few years out of college and tasked with chronicling a preposterously complex part of the economy. Worse, I was really bad at science in school. Not a good combo.

Yet an interesting thing happened. Because I was so unschooled, sources had to explain everything in basic terms. I took copious notes and double checked everything. And that meant I was able to write clearly for readers to comprehend.

If I were covering Hite Ross, I wouldn't be able to ask questions off the top of my head. No follow-ups. No exploring topics. No understanding why things are the way they are. Sorry, readers.

Hite Ross, who was appointed in November, has been criticized for telling county board members to not discuss how money from a public safety tax is used and limiting debate of county business in meetings.

Craven in his letter wrote that "we expect transparency, in the form of honest, thoughtful answers to questions."

He's right.

Writing a story with quotes from submitted questions isn't journalism. It's stenography.

I was going to ask Hite Ross where she stands on all of this. Maybe I should start filling out the form. ​​

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Chris Coates, a former bio-science reporter, is the Central Illinois editor. Contact him at (217) 421-8905. Follow him on Twitter: @ByChrisCoates

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