Read, comment, rinse and repeat

You may be familiar with a recent story that’s gone viral since it was posted on Jan. 1.

The headline reads something along the lines of, “37 people dead of marijuana overdose on first day.” The obviously satirical piece is referring to the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado. Obviously a controversial issue, many opponents to the new law posted the story to support their argument that, not only should marijuana remain illegal in all states, but that it kills.

What started out as an innocent and maybe a little crass internet joke went horribly wrong very quickly. Many who shared it didn’t know it was a parody. Either that’s because they didn’t read it, or they’ve been living under a rock for a very long time.

(Hint: You know something’s meant to be funny when the article first cites a newspaper that famously went out of business years ago, then names one of the drug’s victims — who happens to be none other than Jesse Pinkman from 2013’s most-watched television show, Breaking Bad.)

Readers misunderstand articles. It happens.

But it helps if you actually read a story before spouting off some (completely inaccurate) comment about what you think the story says and why you think it’s probably wrong.

And then you should take the story at face value. Believe it or not, basic comprehension of the material can get you pretty far. For example, in the following sentence, replace the words “are free to” with “should.” There’s a big difference.

“Elected officials are free to speak about what goes on in executive sessions, according to a leading authority on the Georgia Open Meetings Act.”

The above is the lede to a story I wrote on transparency in local government. It’s no secret that it’s an issue I feel strongly about. The story was important because the state’s leading authority on transparency laws issued a strong statement that there’s a huge misconception among government leaders, and even private citizens like myself, about the privilege to executive session.

A couple of readers took that story to mean we were saying public officials should forego their privilege to executive session completely and air all the city’s/county’s business for all to hear during every meeting all the time. They were quick to tell me I was wrong to say that. Alas, my attempts to explain to them — in no uncertain terms — that they were putting words in my mouth, proved to be in vain.

Sometimes, it seems, people just don’t want to listen to reason. Instead, they’d prefer to craft their own meaning to a story then holler about why the author is wrong.

(A former Stockbridge city councilwoman whom I’ve never had the opportunity to meet took the opportunity to remind me that, since I’m so immature, I probably don’t understand what I wrote as well as someone with more or different life experience.)

I really wish they’d taken the time to understand the story, rather than skim the headline and jump to conclusions.

The point of the story, and the crux of Hudson’s argument in this case, is that public officials often get inaccurate legal advice telling them they’re legally prohibited from talking about what goes on in an executive session.

My source’s point, which runs parallel to basically everything I’ve ever believed to be true, is that just because they’re allowed to talk about certain things in secret, they certainly don’t have to.

Sure, there are things that maybe the public doesn’t care to know about. I get that. Personnel discussions are often pretty vanilla and besides, who wants their business out there for the world to see? That’s what open records requests are for — Kidding.

Anyway. Real estate acquisition is another biggie that’s okay to talk about in executive session — usually. While hashing out the particulars of a delicate land deal in executive session for competition’s sake is fine, forging ahead with a multi-million-dollar land deal and neglecting to tell the public any details whatsoever about the contract, including the purchase price, is definitely not okay.

Executive sessions, secret meetings, back-room deals — whatever you want to call them — should be the exception, not the rule.

That being said, I was trained to be incredibly calculated in my words. If I’ve written a story in a certain way, there’s probably a reason for that. Which is why, in the story, I used the phrase “are free to speak” rather that “should speak” in the very first sentence.

We should all choose our words a little more carefully, I think. The world would be a better (and much friendlier) place.

– By Kelsey Cochran, originally published in the Henry Daily Herald Jan. 7, 2014.

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