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COL Fairness, consistency demand full coverage of teacher's death

A popular Rochester teacher was killed in a one-car accident last month. His funeral was one of the most public funerals ever held in Olmsted County -- it was at Century High School, and thousands of mourners attended.

The Winona County officials in charge of determining the cause and factors related to the accident have completed their work, but they won't release perhaps the most pertinent detail: the motorist's blood-alcohol level.

That detail is public information, pure and simple. State law could not be more explicit on the point.

The victim's friends have asked, though, that we not pursue this information and that we not publish it if it's released. They say it's already been established that alcohol was involved and that publishing the victim's blood-alcohol level only compounds the pain for family and friends.

In other words, the newspaper should decide that, because the victim was a popular and much-loved person in the community, we should choose not to report news that we and virtually all news media routinely publish or broadcast.

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If you were in my job -- and there are days that you'd be welcome to it -- what would you do?

Here are issues you have to consider, as you make your decision:

We routinely report blood-alcohol information when alcohol is a factor in accidents. What does it do to our credibility to not report it in this case?

If we don't report it in this case, how can readers be assured that we don't cover up other information as well?

If we allow Winona County officials to withhold information in this case, will officials in other counties do the same thing? What other public information will they try to suppress?

Does the public really have a right to know, in this case? The blood-alcohol figure may legally be published, but does it really serve any public good?

Tough questions, but we think our job is clear.

Our coverage of Neil Woessner's tragic death and all the love and affection that his family and friends had for him was extensive last month -- more than for anyone I can remember in a long time. This was driven by the exceptional outpouring of affection for Neil.

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I would hope that you and most readers would say we did an exemplary job with that coverage.

Now we're in a situation where basic public information on the case is being withheld, and it's not the first time this has happened in Winona County. The same type of dispute occurred after the horrific 1997 accident in which five young people drowned in the Mississippi River. County officials tried to suppress the victims' blood-alcohol reports, as did family members, and the media had to seek release of the records.

Investigative reports on traffic deaths, including the degree to which alcohol may have been involved, are important. They're relevant and meaningful to readers in a wide variety of ways.

Readers virtually never question publication of this information; they expect it as part of the complete public record.

It's simply not possible for us to allow public officials to decide when and where they'll abide by the law, and it's not possible for us to report the news selectively -- withholding certain details -- because a person was much-beloved in the community. That strikes right at the heart of our credibility.

I thought our story on the Woessner case Thursday was handled appropriately, on an inside page, briefly, with a relatively small headline, without sensationalism.

I understand that Woessner's many, many friends and family may disagree about this, and we regret that. It's not our intent to make this worse for anyone. But as a matter of fairness, consistency and credibility -- and of holding public officials accountable for releasing public information -- it's a role we and other news media have to play.

We always welcome your comments. Tell us how you'd deal with this one.

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Furst is the Post-Bulletin's managing editor. Send e-mail to furst@postbulletin.com, or call him at 285-7742.

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