Some weeks are worse than others. This past week or so brought some complications to my life that I thought I would share with you, just for your information. I’ve always believed that open communication is everything: when something becomes an issue, everything should be put out on the table, all the facts, information, context, everything. That way, all parties can evaluate, consider, discuss, and reach a firm and acceptable conclusion.
But what do you do when the communications are, to say the least, dubious, possibly unreliable in content, and definitely controversial in nature? Newspapers, like politicians, receive a lot of communications: e-mails, social media posts, even good old hand-written letters. Some are laudatory, others critical, and many simply containing things the writers want a wider audience to know and appreciate. We discuss issues and offer opinions, and generally engage with each other in open dialogue. The recent exchanges on climate change, for example, were valuable and worthwhile.
But then, there are other kinds of communications, ones which leave you wondering whether they should ever see the light of day. I’m not talking about the scurrilous, the hate-filled, the racist or bigoted ones: they are a separate matter. No, the ones I’m thinking of are the ones that either spread innuendo, misrepresent the facts, or else spread accusations about an “identifiable individual”, as the police might say. These present a conundrum for media.
Do they deserve to be published? Does the media have the right to decide who should, and who should not, be given space? Of course, we do make those decisions all the time, and, usually, there are accepted criteria for making those decisions. But what about when a letter or e-mail contains things we happen to know are untrue, or unlikely, or even questionable? Should we allow them to go ahead and see where it leads? Do we react, respond to them by publishing what we know as fact? There is the approach which says that the oxygen of publicity should be denied them, just as we would hate speech, the names of terrorists looking for publicity, or in the case of those who are deliberately looking to spread accusations against a possibly innocent party.
Let me give you an example: We had a visitor to the office recently, who wanted to know why we hadn’t printed a rant of his against the LGBTQ community. He wanted to know why I would not let him condemn “f—s”. He was told, quite clearly, that his language was not acceptable and his writings would not be printed by us. I should note that he was in the habit of e-mailing me regularly to tell me that God was speaking through him and did not appreciate some things I was writing.
Anyway, he then wrote an e-mail declaring his innocence of any offence, and claiming that we were censoring him because of his beliefs. This he sent to Steve Clark, Andrew Scheer, and all the ministers in North Grenville. (None to Liberals, I noticed). Now, should I write to correct his misrepresentation of the case, or do I rely on the good sense of the recipients (and their previous acquaintance with the sender) to deal with it? Would replying simply give credibility to the complainant?
Another, more potentially serious, e-mail was sent out this week also, demanding an investigation of a person in a position of responsibility in the community. In fact, the content basically just said: “My feelings have been hurt and I don’t like being told what to do!”, but the question it raised was: Is this an accurate description of the situation, or not? Publishing it would throw mud, some of which would inevitably stick, hurting a reputation that might not deserve it. As it happens, in this case, I have my own sources that indicate the wrong party has been blamed, and there is clear doubt about the author of the e-mail and the motivation behind it. We at the Times have been attacked in a similar way, again without foundation, although we did print those ones, since they came from the municipality and council of the day. But let’s not revisit old times.
I suppose that, in every situation, the attitude should be: Approach with caution. Things are not always what they seem, and there is always a temptation to go with something that seems interesting and possibly “big” in terms of news. That’s usually a mistake. People write things for so many reasons, not by any means are all of them worthwhile. There can be a lack of integrity in communicators that we need to remember and of which to be wary.
So, there you have it. The postman may bring all kinds of communications, in all formats. There is a duty to provide a forum for free expression, and also a responsibility to protect innocent parties against malicious accusations. Deciding not to publish may be seen as taking sides. On the other hand, deciding to publish can contribute to destroying credibility and reputations as part of the agenda of petty minded and destructive people. Life is just never simple, is it?