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Legal Speak

Perception vs. Reality

Published June 8, 2009 4:51 PM by Tony DeWitt

Sometimes perception is more important than reality. That is especially true when the perception is that of a newspaper or television reporter, or a witness that the reporter is interviewing.  

In a perfect world, newspapers would report facts and leave the drawing of inferences to their readers. It is not, however, a perfect world. Recently a West Palm Beach area television station received a call from a man who reported that after returning an elderly resident to the nursing home, the nursing home staff "roughed up" the elderly man.

According to the witness the elderly man was found confused and stumbling through traffic. A helpful citizen found him, realized he was from the nursing facility, and returned him. "I saw this as being my grandfather like somebody physically grabbing him and shaking him like a little kid saying "What are you doing out here?" and being rough with him and scaring this man," the witness told the news crew.

Instead of calling the nursing facility to get the other side of the story, the television crew went out with a television van and tried to interview people at the nursing home. 

This is where the nursing facility administrator lost a perfect opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. Assuming that the return of the elderly resident happened, the person who returned the resident should have been celebrated as a hero. The report should have been made to the appropriate agency, and the slant of the news story would have been much different.

Instead, the administrator told the reporter that people didn't ever walk away from the facility, and if they did, he'd have to report it. That gave the news crew reason to question the accuracy of the comment, and they found that the facility had made three missing person reports in the past year, and was ranked in the lower 40% of nursing homes in the county.

Instead of getting positive media attention for "doing the right thing," the facility is instead getting negative media attention for not being completely candid in its responses, which conveys the reporters inferences that the resident likely was treated roughly after being returned to the facility.

Whenever a resident elopes and is returned by a member of the community, every step should be taken to thank the person who acted to protect the resident, and no effort should be made to punish or scold the resident. An incident report should be completed, and the media should be managed. In this case had the administrator taken the good Samaritan into the home, got him a cup of coffee, and profusely thanked him for helping the facility out, the man would likely never have called the media. It was only because he perceived - and that's the key word, perceived -- that something was being done to punish the resident that he contacted the local television station.

It is always better to think things through before deciding on a course of action that involves the media. And it is always possible, even with a story that will be bad for the facility, to offer "no comment" as a response. "No comment" is always better than a half truth, because a half-truth keeps a story alive, where "no comment" causes it to die.

posted by Tony DeWitt
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About this Blog


    A.L. "Tony" DeWitt, RRT, CRT, JD, FAARC
    Occupation: Attorney
    Setting: Jefferson City, Mo.
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