Rounds, local media learn of failure to communicate

Rounds, local media learn of failure to communicate
Gov. Mike Rounds told members of the South Dakota newspaper industry Friday, May 19 that his office and newsrooms across the state likely will never be able to fully agree on all issues.

"But there's a whole lot we do agree on," he said.

The governor later learned during a question and answer session with his audience that his introductory statement proved to be uncomfortably accurate.

Rounds keynoted the opening luncheon of the 124th South Dakota Newspaper Association, held at the Al Neuharth Media Center on The University of South Dakota campus in Vermillion.

He noted that his office has been utilizing a "list service" for several years now that allows state departments to communicate not only with government professionals, but also members of the media.

"If you're not using it, please consider doing so," Rounds said.

Arnold Garson, publisher of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, criticized the governor for making it difficult for his newspaper to obtain facts vital to keeping the public informed about the recent outbreak of mumps in the state.

"I'd like to know how a gag order that effectively prevents the state health department fits with your stated belief this afternoon in openness in government," Garson said, "and what it has to do with access to state records."

Tena Haraldson, bureau chief of the South Dakota Associated Press, praised the state's Division of Wildlife for training journalists in the proper way to visit forest and range fires scenes.

"I would love to see the rest of state government adopt that same openness attitude," she said, "because in my experience, the health department is one of the worst state departments to deal with.

"I want to assure you governor, ethically from a very honest standpoint," she said, "? that getting information out of departments has been very difficult and has not really changed a lot since you took office."

The governor defended the practices of his administration, stating that a lawsuit filed by the Argus Leader seeking information that the Rounds administration considers to be private explains why state government officials are unable at times to communicate with the media.

Rounds said his office sought legal advice after the lawsuit was filed.

"They advised us that we, our representatives, shouldn't have contact with the Argus Leader unless we have an attorney present," the governor said.

Rounds said this legal advice has been shared with the Argus on numerous occasions.

"We presume that they know that," he said. "When it came time to talk about issues that would be considered public information, we don't believe there is a gag order in place, even on the Argus Leader."

The governor has directed individuals within state departments, however, upon receiving a request for a personal interview by a representative of the Argus Leader, to either clear it with their public information officer, refer the request to a public information office, or get permission with an attorney before responding.

Rounds once again reiterated his administration's position in dealing with the media.

"In terms of a gag order, there isn't one in terms of public information, and I think you will find that every single question has always been answered in a public forum," he said.

State employees, however, must deal with the media differently when asked about what Rounds termed "personal information."

"We will not require any employee to make editorial comments, to provide additional information," he said, "and so forth unless they know it does not hurt our case to protect private information that helps the citizens of South Dakota and not hurt them."

He told Garson to look around at the luncheon audience, made up primarily of South Dakota daily and weekly newspaper publishers and editors.

"I haven't had a complaint," Rounds said. "I haven't had a complaint from anybody out here that says we haven't been open in terms of providing public information."

The Argus has been particularly critical of health department officials' unwillingness to be more open about the state's current mumps outbreak.

The governor's office has also received negative scrutiny after it failed to immediately notify the media of details concerning a death in Rapid City earlier this year attributed to Legionnaires' disease.

The state didn't issue a press release when that happened, he said, because Legionnaires' disease is not contagious.

Haraldson noted that Legionnaires' disease may not be communicable, but it could be caught by someone who unknowingly frequented the same places as those people who had earlier contracted the disease.

The press should be informed of all serious health issues, she said.

"You don't need to filter the information and tell us what's newsworthy, and we feel that's what's happening," Haraldson said. "Let the press decide that."

Rounds attributed the difficulty, in part, because state officials had just learned of the fatality when media inquiries began.

"After you knew, it continued," Haraldson said.

"After we knew?" the governor asked.

"After you knew there was a case of Legionnaires,' the difficulty in obtaining information continued," she said. "Frankly, the PR people from the department (of health) would not talk to us, and that's never a good position to be in."

Rounds said he would be happy to review policies, and he said he knows the state health department has been met with unique challenges recently.

His comments did little to quell some of the luncheon audience's concerns, however.

"There is a serious, serious feeling among the media in this state," Haraldson said, "that our state government is not as open as it could be and is always leaning in favor of ?we'll close it just in case.'

"We are getting that opinion day in and day out, and we are very concerned about it. It goes very deep," she said.

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