Reporting isn’t endorsing

One of the unavoidable results of the “fake news” plague is that biased news coverage has become so common in major newspapers and on national broadcast news that it is easy for people to forget the fundamentals of newspaper in terms of expressing opinion and simply providing news.

This occurred to me a few times last week based on communications from readers, so it seemed worth an explanation once again.

One day last week, I got a voice mail message from a woman. She was quite agitated. She is a longtime subscriber (thank you!), but was upset that “every day” she opened the paper, beyond the local news and other material she liked, there was all of this “anti-Trump” news. She disliked this because she didn’t think it was fair and that President Trump was doing as good a job as possible given the opposition.

She’s right – in a sense. A lot of national news critical of the president is low-end journalism that would never see print in regard to any other president. It is “fake news” in terms of being news based on single, unnamed sources. Had the caller left a number, I would have been happy to discuss this with her.

Where the caller went awry is in the belief that our national news coverage of the administration somehow endorses the national news. Whether one likes the national news most newspapers carry from Associated Press (AP) or not, it is none-the-less news. It is not generated in Minot. The same, limited stories are available to every newspaper that uses AP, which is most of them. The reality is that not all news is favorable to the president; nor all of it favorable to his opponents. But it is all news. What it is not is opinion. One can tell this by where one reads something. News appears on News pages (including front pages). Local news is generated by us. Regional news is a combination of our work, statewide AP and occasionally news from one of our North Dakota news source friends. National news comes from AP and we use it to complement our local news. Frankly, our local news is the focus of 90 percent of our effort. Our use of national and international news is an obligation we have to our readers to give them at least the top headlines from AP.

Love him or loathe him, President Trump is the most adept president in history when it comes to generating news. Some good, some bad, some open to interpretation. What’s important to remember is that is is news, not opinion, and certainly not the opinion of MDN. MDN – like any newspaper that tries to retain traditional values – does not feed readers national news that they will only like. That would be fostering a fantasy in which there is no conflict, no controversy, in national news. That would be dishonest on our part.

Furthermore, the only place you will ever read the opinion of MDN is on the Opinion page. Period. This is where we endorse ideas, candidates, policy, etc. Every other News page in the paper is just news. We might agree or disagree, but News pages aren’t where you will see us express that.

Ironically, the day after this call came in, the same woman left me another message, thanking me for an issue that she felt wasn’t critical of the president. Honestly, I didn’t even notice that. We don’t make decisions based on factors like that – it would be dishonest on our part and it would be a disservice to our readers. To anyone who might feel the way the caller does (or the opposite!): you do not want MDN or any other news source to feed you only things with which you agree. Because there is no way to do that without feeding you fake news. If you read something that is all puppies and sunshine, you are being fed fake news.

We had another situation last week where people couldn’t differentiate news from opinion. Last week was a bit of a spectacle in Minot as the city struggled with issues of bad dogs and a pit bull ban, hens and snakes as pets and urban hunting. We reported on each of these issues. However, we have also not taken a solid editorial position on these issues. MDN doesn’t see the issues as black or white, we do not opine on every issue the city considers, and we feel arguments on both sides have validity. So, our coverage of these issues was limited to straight news coverage of city action and a couple of poll questions on the topic – and even the poll questions were half satirical. Satirical because with everything happening in town, these issues seemed to be the ones that inspired the most passion. Poll questions appear on our Opinion page, not a News page.

Obviously some people still don’t understand the role of the Opinion page, nor recognize satire when they see it. Just the news coverage and poll question were enough to inspire some pretty off-kilter responses. My favorite was a message from a man in a state 2000 miles away. The “gentleman” decided that based on our non-position on the pit bull issue that we must therefor support the ban. There is no bad dog, but rather bad owners who raised bad dogs, the guy wrote – a position with which I am personally somewhat sympathetic. If I, as author of the cheeky poll question that bothered him, didn’t understand this, then he threatened to travel thousands of miles to confront me. This was the most hilarious moment of the week for me. So, bad dogs are made by bad owners. OK. And if I don’t agree with that, then this guy wants to travel thousands of miles to, presumably, cause me harm in order to convince me of his opinion’s virtue. Irony much? I thought ‘Buddy, you proved the point about bad owners. Clearly someone like you has no business raising a nipping chihuahua, much less an animal you can train to assist you in your cross-country threats.’

Still, come see North Dakota. Maybe the stark beauty of the high prairie will inspire some clarity and peace.

That’s what happens when people don’t understand the difference between news and opinion in newspaper.

Those people who expect any news outlet to report only stories that support their positions and opinions that mimic their own are as much a threat to public discourse as purveyors of fake news themselves. If you follow only news sources that agree with your opinions, you are being fed lies and you are being manipulated. The world is not made of black and white simplicity. Issues as serious as war and as relatively mild as pets, are gray. More simplistic perspectives than that are responsible for most of the horrors of the past century.

Debates are healthy. Absolutes absent principles are for children.