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Lyons: Scary election story? What took you so long?

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Forget Halloween.

Today can be one of the scariest days of the year. We call it Dirty Tricks Thursday. With just a few days before the election, ghouls and goblins creep out from their lairs with warnings of doom.

You don’t ring their doorbell; they ring yours. They don’t offer candy, only cryptic emails, phone messages or letters and faxes from the more technically challenged creatures of the dark. They won’t use their own names, but gleefully provide names of political candidates whom they don’t like, listing a series of crimes against humanity perpetrated by the candidate often without proof, credibility or the slightest bit of dignity.

The motivation is evident – they don’t want Candidate X to win, but it’s wise to hide their allegiance to Candidate Y. Wise is a generous adjective for this behavior because it rarely produces the desired results.

What is hoped is that journalists will take the unverified information at face value, which never happens, or that they’ll slap together some haphazard set of facts and push a story through on deadline when it’s too close to the election to rectify any damage caused. If key parts of the story are not put into appropriate context or omitted because they can’t be determined within a few days time, it’s too late.

From the tipster’s point of view, they have nothing to lose. They operate in shadows. If the information is being unfairly characterized, partially false, or complete fiction, no one knows who they are. They won’t look bad. The candidate who was unfairly attacked and the news organization who fell for it will.

So that’s the first question you’ve got to ask yourself. If this information was so vital to an election, why are we just hearing about it now? You assume that you’re being rushed on purpose. They’re playing on the pressure to get the story first. But who wants to bear the responsibility for changing the results of an election through irresponsible reporting?

The problem for journalists is that once in a great while, the information is not only true, but important to voters and the public at large. We have to make that decision. Most of the time it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not.

What does the public have a right to know about a candidate? Quite a bit, but what about personal details? Do you need to know all about the divorce of someone running for township board? It’s hard to imagine why. Say someone’s kid got into trouble. What does his kid have to do with the village board?

But there’s no formula for this. Obviously, sometimes peoples’ private lives intersect with their public lives. Maybe a divorce file contains allegations of public corruption. Anyone who’s ever read a divorce file knows that doesn’t make them true, but you can’t just ignore them. Maybe someone’s kid had a run-in with the law and the village board member pressured police to drop the charges.

The point is that if you’re trying to attack Candidate X for valid reasons regardless of motivation, those allegations need to be made well before the waning days of a campaign so they can be vetted – not dumped in reporters’ laps a few days before the election.

Otherwise most of them end up as ghost stories, not news stories, or worse – blog entries. Now that’s scary.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com.

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