A Fundamental Debate Online: A Joint Op-Ed

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by David Shanahan and Victor Lachance

You may have noticed the interest and responses generated by our recent articles about the fundamentals of journalism and the fundamental right of newspaper owners and editors to express their views. This debate actually started last Fall, shortly after National Newspaper Week, when we began to exchange emails about these topics, and, subsequently about the importance of having a good understanding of Christianity. It has been a very collegial discussion where we discovered the many things on which we do agree, and, of course, we identified certain things on which we disagree. More recently, we agreed that it might be interesting to extend the debate into the editorial pages of the Times.

We both feel that we are dealing with important and relevant topics in today’s world of ubiquitous sources of news information – often without context – and what seems to be an increasingly combative approach to issues of public interest. One of us is a newspaper owner/publisher that helps to pro-vide context, and the other one believes that the Times is a great asset to our local community. We therefore think the debate about journalism principles, and how the Times deals with important subjects like religion, is worth pursuing.

While doing so through editorial pages and letters to the Editor has shown itself to be productive, it nevertheless limits our ability to enrich the debate through a more fluid and expansive discussion. It also limits the Times readers’ ability to get the context of this debate, or at least our view of that context. One way to improve this situation is with a podcast. The Times regularly hosts half-hour podcasts on various subjects. And so we both think that it would be worthwhile – and fun – to extend this debate onto the Times’ podcasts. We hope you agree.

Given the recent controversy about social media platforms and the measures they have, or have not, taken to deal with misinformation, racist or false statements, as well as incitement to hatred and violence, this seems to us to be a particularly good time to have a discussion about the extent to which media of all kinds, newspapers, websites, Facebook, Twitter, and so many others, are responsible for content.

Facebook, for example, is now facing a determined campaign by advertisers, mostly large corporate sponsors, to withhold revenues from Facebook until controversial and objectionable content is dealt with effectively. Much of this current debate is “thanks” to Donald Trump.

There has been a growing public reaction against his constant lies and misrepresentations on Twitter, and it seems that there is no longer a defense available to moderators and editors to claim that they are simply allowing free speech to flourish. This means that, in future, editors will have to judge between the acceptable and the objectionable, between various points of view and opinions. This may be a very positive move, at least in the opinion of this newspaper’s Editor.

We hope that the upcoming podcasts will allow for a more in-depth discussion of the implications of this development, giving all parties an opportunity to give points of view in more detail, as well as providing for a more free-wheeling conversation between the two of us. But that is not the extent of the project. It may be that, should there be sufficient interest on the part of the public, the podcasts could be expanded to cover specific topics, such as the role of God in the newspaper, the extent to which the right of free speech should be limited by the need to maintain community standards.

There has been a tendency to declare rights and demands without necessarily providing a rationale or justification for such statements. For example, the NG Council has recently declared VanTurken Month and Pride Month in the municipality. Does Council consider both are of equal merit and importance? Probably not: but what is the thinking behind both declarations, and how would they approach requests by other causes to have flags flown?

These, and many other, issues need the time and thought that are not always possible in newspaper articles and editorials.

We hope to have the first podcast available on the Times website as early as this weekend, at the latest. We look forward to your reactions.

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