Tax, talk and tragedy

As expected…

Going into City of Minot budget season, we anticipated how the discussion would go, so events of the past week-plus were hardly shocking around the office. Officially, Minot Daily News had been opining for months that residents should prepare themselves for a tough budget season on all fronts; furthermore, as is usually the case, we suggested residents learn and understand the reasons why that would be so.

Thus it was little surprise that even before details were widely distributed, social media exploded in reaction to just headlines. As expected, response was overwhelmingly negative. That was no surprise because no one likes to see taxes go up. What was slightly surprising was the quantity of misinformation and misunderstanding that burned through social media like Sherman ‘touring’ Atlanta.

But this column space isn’t to explain municipal finance. Instead, it is to explain how we handle situations like this. Question: when people post things on our social media sites, do we invest the time and effort correcting their factual errors, explaining their misconceptions and otherwise sharing information to which we are privy that might be harder for the public to readily access? We faced this question as we read online responses to the excellent analysis (as usual) by Senior Staff Writer Jill Schramm after a lengthy, honest but tough editorial board meeting with city administrative staff about the budget. Staff was split on what, if anything, we should do. Some were aggravated that so many people seemed to only respond to headlines without apparently having read any of the actual news. Others figured it was just the internet, where fake news, conspiracy theories and echo chambers abound.

It isn’t that we don’t occasionally directly reply to social media and website postings. We have. People will ask about details in a story that help clarify it for them; they’ve asked us to check on the legality of some issues about which we write; folks ask us lots of things. When we have or can get the information, we have frequently responded. I think this is an aspect of being a community newspaper and, hey, we like the dialogue.

In this case, we opted not to respond online. While I might have made that call in a minute, a lot of factors went into the decision. One was the sheer volume of commentary and the time and effort that would go into correcting misconceptions and rumors. Two, if people are angry, they are angry. It’s our job to bring information, not to tell people how to feel about it. Third and finally, I’d already decided that there was so much bunk being repeated that MDN would launch soon a limited series on the budget, in an effort to break it down and explain it so those people who wanted to really understand it would have the opportunity to learn something important from the comfort of their own homes.

Just the facts

We faced a similar issue at the office this week after the tragic story broke of a beautiful New Town woman who disappeared last fall and whose body was discovered in Lake Sakakawea. While probably few expected the story would have a happy ending, Olivia Lone Bear’s terrifying final moments tugged at the heart. As the story of the discovery broke in various media, MDN was faced with several decisions on coverage that had to be addressed swiftly. Social media and other outlets chose to release information that we could not confirm. As usual, there was a rush in media to get the story out and information did appear that the FBI could not confirm. Our call was to go with only that which we could confirm, even if it meant other details emerged in other media. This has really become our mantra the past year or so: get it right, not first. For the couple of readers who asked me about this last week, that’s why we published what we did, when we did. I am unaware of anything going awry elsewhere with what was published, but why risk unnecessarily causing friends and family of Olivia any more pain.

Want to hear a secret?

In one of my favorite scenes in my favorite movie about newspapers, an aging, cynical editor explains to a rising executive that while journalists walk in powerful circles, we aren’t them. For a largely goofy film that just happens to be entertaining (Ron Howard’s The Paper, OK!) this was among many unlikely true lines. Still, it’s nice to occasionally be in position to be sitting across from people who actually have influence over making change and to be able to say something. Maybe that’s a secret journalists outside of D.C. are supposed to keep. But it is a rare bonus. This occurred to me this week when Sen. Heidi Heitkamp visited MDN’s offices and graciously answered a lot of questions and discussed many issues. We had the opportunity to discuss the Olivia Lone Bear case and the apparent delays and challenges in the investigation. It was rewarding to hear that Heidi seems on top of the situation, leading a call for protocols to improve future similar situation responses – the goal of the family, Heidi emphasized.