Most journalists learn a few things early in their careers. After an episode connected to The Star’s recent coverage of Regional Medical Center, two of those lessons stand out in my mind.
First: Concealing one’s identity runs counter to the transparency and accountability we demand of those we cover.
Second: Those we cover, and even some readers, sometimes get uncomfortable or angry when we insist on that transparency and accountability.
Someone got angry, apparently, with our recent coverage of a decision by RMC’s leaders to hire a new firm to run its emergency departments. That someone made his or her discomfort clear on The Star’s Facebook page, in comments on our post linking to the story about RMC’s decision. One of the important points of the story: RMC had declined to provide The Star a copy of its contract with the firm, Birmingham-based Aristo ER, even though the document is pretty clearly a public record.
Who got angry? That’s hard to know. The commenter created a Facebook account in the name of the reporter who wrote the story, even lifting the profile photo from the reporter’s actual account to make it appear as if Patrick McCreless was criticizing his own work.
So, someone lied about his or her identity to criticize accurate reporting about RMC’s lack of transparency.
Was this person a hospital official or employee? That’s also hard to know, but setting up a fake Facebook account under someone else’s name seems childish for a working professional. Doctors, nurses and executives have more important things to do, I imagine. It seems at least as likely that the commenter was a standard troll, the kind of graffitist all-too common on the Internet, motivated by a desire to embarrass The Star rather than any connection to RMC. (We’ve blocked the account from further posts on our page.)
The commenter was right about one thing: Much of our story was familiar. RMC’s leaders have often declined to provide The Star with documents we’re sure are public records. The hospital’s board is a public body, subject to Alabama’s open records laws. When the board has denied us records — such as documents related to the purchase of Jacksonville Medical Center in 2013 or the hospital’s 2011 budget — we’ve reported it, because we think our readers deserve to know.
RMC is the largest hospital serving our region, and it’s one of Anniston’s major employers — lives and livelihoods alike depend on decisions made by the hospital’s leaders. We’ll continue to cover RMC aggressively, and we’ll let readers know when the hospital resists that coverage.
Readers and sources, of course, are free to disagree with our coverage and our conclusions. They’re even welcome to share that disagreement in writing, in letters to the editor, op-ed pieces and comments on our Facebook page. But we’ll insist they identify themselves, just as journalists identify themselves when they seek and report the news.