The comments received, for and not for publication, about alleged underfed horses in Bedford County -- and what those making the comments want us to say -- provide a good lesson for all about how journalism works.
The case involves a woman and daughter who have been accused -- and that's a key word, accused -- by several concerned horse enthusiasts of allegedly purchasing horses and not feeding them properly. They've been accused of moving from place to place as their horses were allegedly ordered from various stables due to lack of feeding.
But those charged with legally protecting the horses say they are being cared for. Sheriff Randall Boyce, a lifelong horseman who has never been accused of lack of care for horses, says the women are nursing the horses back to health -- a slow and not immediately-visible process. Extension Agent John Teague, a horse owner himself who is widely respected for his equine knowledge, has also checked on the horses.
And the woman has not been charged in connection with the animals' alleged conditions. That's what's setting off a lot of horse enthusiasts, many of whom want us to print their claims as absolute facts and ignore officials' statements.
In the process, the moderator of a Facebook site containing comments on the issue was told to tone down/remove postings or face possible arrest. The journalist within me says free speech shouldn't be throttled. But the common sense I like to think I have agrees that Internet postings can go too far.
"Most feel that your reports of what's going on are so vague and one sided that it is a waste of print to publish them," one e-mailer, who is vehemently against the horse owners, said of our coverage.
Sorry she feels that way. We reported both sides of the story. That's set off some folks opposing the horses' owners, most who insist they must remain anonymous, because we didn't slant our coverage to their side.
Anonymity has been a problem in this case. We were able to report an allegation of previous malnourishment only because one person was willing to publicly identify himself.
My only regret with our coverage are some issues involving alleged -- again, note the word alleged -- comments made by Teague over his assessment of the horses' conditions.
We almost never print unattributed comments but felt in this isolated case, since two individuals had identified themselves to us, that they needed to tell their side of the story. Some were offended because we didn't quote Teague; he was out of the office Wednesday and had told us last Monday that under the law, he could not comment.
We should have waited a day, until he returned, and given Teague an opportunity to respond, even if his comment was simply, "no comment." We apologize to Mr. Teague for that.
Teague has done a tremendous amount of work for Bedford County and is widely respected by this community, and deservedly so. Don't judge him by allegations made by a few people on one issue. His achievements tell his true story.
We'll continue to report any actual decisions and actions -- but not speculation -- on the horses if any occur. But we strongly prefer, at all times on all issues, to hear from people who will speak on the record. And all should remember that facts, not emotions, should be the key to decisions.
-- T-G copy editor David Melson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.