From the editor: A battle worth fighting
May 29, 2014
Steamboat Springs — In the past month, the Steamboat Pilot & Today has won two cases filed in response to attempts by the Routt County District Attorney’s Office to seal documents in the Meghan McKeon case. And while we have achieved favorable rulings in court, it is apparent that when it comes to the court of public opinion, the jury is still out.
There have been those who have congratulated us on our fight to uphold the First Amendment and the Colorado Open Records Act, but there are others who have questioned why the newspaper felt it was important enough to go to court to obtain copies of McKeon's arrest affidavit and her son's autopsy report. In these instances, the readers said they didn't want to know the disturbing details of Austin Davis's death, and they interpreted our attempts to obtain the records as an example of tabloid journalism or sensationalism.
The articles about the decision by the DA's Office to seal documents and the newspaper's reaction have been factual and fair to all parties involved, and now that both cases have been adjudicated and the autopsy report has been released by judge's order, I think it's time for me, as editor, to set the record straight and offer the newspaper's perspective on why we fight these battles.
First and foremost, it is the responsibility of news organizations and journalists everywhere to ensure elected officials and governmental bodies are adhering to open records law. We are on the front lines of this fight for open and transparent government, and we will remain diligent in fulfilling our watchdog role.
In this particular case, we witnessed the local DA's Office attempting to withhold more and more information from the public view by requesting that public documents be sealed. This was an alarming trend that forced our hand. The district attorney is elected by the people to serve all the citizens of Routt County. In this position, he is obligated to uphold the law, and we could not stand by and watch him ignore Colorado's open records law and our First Amendment rights.
To us, these cases were about more than just knowing all the facts, they were about championing a free press and the public's right to know. We realize that many of our readers don't want to know every grisly detail of a young child's death, and with our community and readership in mind, we used discretion in the information we included in the news story we printed following the release of the autopsy report. That same news judgment was used after we received the arrest affidavit. In that case, the affidavit was a five-page document, which we condensed to a factual, well-balanced 940-word story.
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Even though it was within our rights to publish the full affidavit and autopsy report in the newspaper and on our website, we chose not to do that. Again, we practiced discretion, and I think it's important that the public know that.
At last week's hearing, when he was announcing his decision to order the coroner to release the autopsy report, District Court Judge Michael O'Hara commented on the articles the Steamboat Pilot & Today had published on the McKeon case. He told the court that the two articles that had been submitted as evidence during the hearing did not appear to be slanted. He described the reporting as "factual" and "fair," which is some of the highest praise a newspaper can receive.
As a newspaper, it is our role to print the facts of a news story so that people know the truth of what happened, especially in cases when we're forced to report on unexplainable tragedy.
In the case of Austin Davis, we believe it is important for the community to know the true circumstances surrounding the death of a 3-year-old boy living in Steamboat Springs. This information allows the public to better respond to incidents of this kind and to be aware that bad things happen, even in places as idyllic as a resort town in the Colorado Rockies.
Knowing that Austin died of extreme dehydration could result in the City Council considering ordinances that require running water at any public campgrounds with long-term rentals. Or maybe, human service organizations could choose to work together to create a system to monitor the wellbeing of young children who are not involved in the school system. Or maybe a community forum is held to discuss the high cost of childcare in Routt County and brainstorm solutions.
This type of public exchange, sparked by the news that people read in their local newspapers, can foster positive change. And even the sometimes harsh public commenting that these stories spawn serves a purpose — it creates a safety valve that affords people the opportunity to vent publicly and to diffuse a more threatening vigilante justice response. Printing the truth also puts an end to the sometimes vicious public rumor mill.
All of the information we pursued was pivotal to telling the story of what happened to Austin Davis, and all of that information is vital to the public debate that surrounds tragedies like this.
We still don't have all the answers as to why something like this happened in our community, and we may never discover those reasons, but at least, our readers now know some of the facts of what happened and can come to their own informed conclusions.
Even in the face of public criticism, the Steamboat Pilot & Today will not back down from this fight. Your newspaper remains committed to making sure the Colorado Open Records Act and the First Amendment are upheld, and it is our hope that recent court victories have served notice of that commitment.