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A small papers look into corruption
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As a community newspaper editor, I’m always on the lookout for stories about papers like the C-I either doing stories you wouldn’t expect from “small” publications or that are thriving in some way.

There’s plenty of examples, actually, including from here in South Carolina. Today, however, I’m going to take you a bit further south to Lakeland, Fla.

I don’t know The Lakeland Ledger’s circulation figures, but the city’s population is just under 100,000. Certainly, that’s larger than Camden and even all of Kershaw County, but by newspaper industry standards, that would still be considered a “small” market.

Anyway, as part of an ongoing series called “The New Ethics of Journalism” (which will be collected in print under a similar title), the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride spotlighted the Ledger on Thursday for its coverage of a story that faintly echoes things going on at the Columbia Police Department here in the Midlands of South Carolina.

For most of the summer, McBride reports, the Ledger has provided nearly “daily installments of a story of law enforcement dysfunction that seems more like a script for Reno 911 than a scandal plaguing a modern-day police department.”

As a result of the Ledger’s work, five officers have resigned or been fired, others reassigned or suspended and up to 20 current officers and current and former city employees have been implicated.

Implicated in what, you ask?

McBride answers, “...investigators have exposed a culture of sexual harassment and permissiveness, which includes documentation of police officers and staff members having sex in city offices, police cars, city parks and abandoned property.” Well, isn’t that special, as the Church Lady used to say.

Looking at some of the Ledger’s work for myself, I also see where complaints include “improper searches and botched criminal cases involving officers accused of altering sworn statements used in court.”

Interestingly, a recent town meeting where 200 people showed up had most folks supporting Police Chief Lisa Womack. Most of those speaking up said they applauded the fact that, as soon as the allegations were made public, Womack requested an investigation. Critics, however, said Womack isn’t working well with a state attorney.

Some in attendance also criticized the Ledger, saying it was no longer the “Newspaper With a Heart,” as it has often been called, for going after the police department. One defender, however, pointed out that if it hadn’t been for the paper, citizens would have never known about the allegations in the first place.

And that’s what a community paper -- whether it be in a 7,000 population city and 61,000 population county, or a city of 100,000 -- has to do. We are charged with being the public’s eyes, ears and voice.

Back in 2007, I wrote in this space about a book called The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. In it, they list out 10 journalistic principles, the first and foremost of which is “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” The second is that it’s first loyalty is to citizens. Another tenet that applies here is the eighth principle: that journalists “must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.”

I can’t sit here and tell you, since I’m here in Camden and not Lakeland, Fla., whether or not the Ledger has met that eighth edict. I think it has from what I’ve seen, but I don’t know it.

Let me return to Poynter’s McBride: “While there hasn’t been a comprehensive analysis of the group’s reporting as a whole, the stories coming out of Lakeland suggest that for the time being, the paper is serious about its role as watchdog.”

The Ledger has more employees than we do at the C-I, which is to be expected -- the equivalent of 54 full-time employees. My counterpart, Editor Lenore Devore, told McBride they used to have 99 FTEs back in 1999. She, like I, is involved in day-to-day operations.

“This particular string of investigations began as the police department became increasingly obstructionist about releasing public records and other information,” McBride wrote. “Ultimately, the paper would string together a series of stories that revealed a host of bigger issues throughout the department, including a culture of incompetence and corruption.”

Devore, as I know I would, went to the police department and asked how things could get better between the department and newspaper. She, unfortunately, left feeling Womack wasn’t interested. That led to more confrontations over records request, according to McBride.

The Ledger must have been doing something right, in my opinion, because, soon, they were getting tips from sources in all kinds of government agencies trying to figure out what the PD was up to. Finally, the paper was able to report that grand jury and state investigations had been launched.

I hope we never have to write anything like this here in Camden and Kershaw County. But let me assure you that if we ever learn about something like this -- and have on-the-record, black-and-white proof to back it up -- we will not hesitate to do our jobs. Neither will we print mere innuendo, let me assure you.

Whether in print or online, we have been here and we will continue to be here to be the eyes, ears and voice of this community. That is our promise to you, our neighbors.