What can journalism students learn from the Kirby Delauter debacle?
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UPDATE: Kirby Delauter issued an apology to the reporter on Wednesday, January 7, 2015.
On January 6, 2015, a news outlet claiming to be the North Korean News Service tweeted about Frederick County councilman Kirby Delauter’s recent attempt to “restrict press freedom” in Frederick after he threatened Bethany Rodgers, a member of the press, with legal action after publishing his name in the Frederick News Post.
Did a real dictator just criticize Frederick County?
This sparked a lot of discussion at Lancer Media. What are our roles as journalists-in-training? Could we have avoided this scandal that affects every Frederick County citizen?
In the Rodgers’ article, Delauter’s name is mentioned twice. Delauter was upset when he learned that Rodgers had “used [his] name unauthorized” and threatened legal action against the FNP, citing that “[Rodgers’] rights stop where [his] start.”
Journalism students should know that Delauter can threaten a lawsuit if he had been slandered, but in this case his threats do not have any legal merit.
As an elected official, it shouldn’t be offensive to Delauter that journalists are permitted to use his name in the media. Rodgers’ First Amendment rights do not end where Delauter’s feelings begin, nor should they. This is similar to how our Second, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment rights shouldn’t cease to exist whenever they become inconvenient for the government.
In fact, Rodgers would be doing a disservice to the public by not including Delauter’s name in her story. Rodgers also reached out to Delauter for comment before publishing the story, which is a basic journalism practice. While it does sound like Rodgers and Delauter have a bad history, and it’s understandable why he could be upset, that does not give him an excuse to engage in, as The Frederick News Post labeled in their editorial, “bullying.”
Beyond journalism, as Frederick County residents, we may feel betrayed by Mr. Delauter’s comments. It’s no secret that Frederick County has a reputation of being a county full of rednecks, not-so-affectionately referred to as “Frednecks.”
One Lancer staff member remarked that his own mother is a state employee and has been the butt of many “Fredneck” jokes. It’s not a big deal, but it doesn’t reflect most of us, especially considering that we have some of the best schools in the country. Without intending to, Mr. Delauter’s comments have reinforced our image as backwoods country-folk.
Furthermore, in the age of social media, where one’s words can be seen by whomever cares to look, Delauter has unintentionally made us a joke, not just at the state level, but at the international level. All of us local residents are now the butt of an international “Fredneck” joke.
However, Delauter is still a man and a citizen of Frederick County. According to his website, Mr. Delauter is a US Army veteran who has raised four children – all university students or graduates. He was a construction worker before buying his family’s business in 1993, a local business which operates in the tri-state area. Delauter is a man who has devoted his entire life to serving the public in Frederick.
All it took for him to be thrust into the international limelight was a careless Facebook post and an apparent grudge against the media. But this isn’t unheard of. Like the athlete who lost a scholarship because of his twitter feed, or the gamer who got arrested for making a joke on Facebook, social media has the ability to destroy, in seconds, anyone who misuses it.
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As soon as Kirby Delauter posted his status on Facebook, in which he tagged Bethany Rodgers, the resulting situation was inevitable.
The Frederick News Post’s editorial response shocked Lancer Media. The response was funny and entertaining, which is why it went viral, but it was undignified and vindictive. It was an entertainment piece at the expense of Mr. Delauter. While the staff at the FNP have a valid point–that Mr. Delauter was a bully to Rodgers and other people in the past–calling Mr. Delauter names and then telling him to “stop this silly, inflammatory nonsense” is ironic.
If the FNP disagrees with his policies, they should write about them. If the FNP thinks he’s a bully, they should write about it. But if the FNP wants to call Mr. Delauter names, then perhaps they should reserve that for something other than our city’s newspaper.
So, what can young journalists and teens learn from this story?
Before retweeting, reposting, or reblogging something about anyone, not just Kirby Delauter, teens should remember that their target is a human being, too, and talking to a bully like a bully makes us bullies in the end.