Press is the public


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Mental health issues are increasing in communities across the nation, and it can place the media in that difficult gray area between the public's right to know and individual privacy.

We had a situation this week where an incident was broadcast over the emergency scanner and sounded serious. We followed up and police told us it involved a mental health patient. A nonspecific public threat was made, but police did not file charges. In the end, we dropped our pursuit of a story.

It doesn't always end that way, regardless of charges, but in the end there was little to this incident despite its original ominous tone.

Journalists in Dallas, Texas, meanwhile, had their own situation regarding public access and a mental health defendant on Oct. 21. Police shut a group of reporters out of a public meeting about the shooting of a mentally ill man by a Dallas police officer. The twist was that the public was allowed in, leading the locked-out journalists to begin tweeting about their plight and phoning city officials, according to a story by Kristen Hare for The Poynter Institute. The shutout didn't last long, and the reporters were allowed in.

That's absolutely the right call in this case, where the significance of a shooting involving a police officer trumps any privacy concerns.

Besides, shutting out the media while allowing public access is oxymoronic. It's often overlooked that members of the media aren't there just for themselves or on behalf of the organization they represent - they're there as the eyes and ears of the public. They are the public.

As Dallas Morning News reporter Tristan Hallman wrote in an e-mail to Poynter, "... anyone in the room who had a phone could have recorded the meeting's happenings and posted them on the Internet instantly."

There's nothing private about that.

'Epic' series, indeed

Assistant editor Jake Betz's idea for a series on past political elections turned out to be a terrific lesson in, not only local politics, but Northumberland County history as well.

And there's no doubt his "Epic Battles" was an epic series, stretching over 25 days and involving elections from a 46-year span - 1965 to 2011. It started on Oct. 9 and wrapped up today.

It involved a tremendous amount of research, which mixed nicely with Jake's astute analysis of these political battles - many of which he covered through the years.

Political junkies loved it, and Jake fielded numerous calls from those who share his passion for local politics.

For the Average Joe, the series had value, too, in that it demonstrates the importance of elections and the power of the electorate.

The series dated back to the 1960s, but it's worth noting that six of the 25 epic elections occurred since 2006.

While it seems unlikely the 2013 general election will go down as a "rip-roaring epic," that's no excuse not to get to the polls on Tuesday.

If you missed any of the series stories or would like to read them again, visit newsitem.com and click on the "Epic Battles" link at the top left of the homepage.

(Andy Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item, writes "The Week In News" for each Saturday edition.)

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