Editor’s note: This column is part of a seven-day Forum Communications series on the First Amendment. If you have a question or comment, please email email@example.com.
Kathy didn’t give her last name and we don’t know where she’s from. Her note, however, resonates.
“As a kid, I thought whatever was written in the press had to be the truth, in black and white,” she wrote to Forum Communications Co., which operates newspapers, television and radio stations and specialty websites in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. “Today, there is more opinion presented as truth, making it harder to disseminate the truth. This has led to more separation between people.”
Kathy wrote that after our company called out to readers, seeking questions and concerns about the First Amendment, freedom of speech and the news media in general.
Probably unknowingly, she summed up the focus of an FCC project that kicks off today — one we hope will help readers better understand how Forum Communications and the media operate as they strive to present factual and unbiased news. During our First Amendment Week series, we’ll explain the differences between news and opinion, as well as this company’s reporting processes.
And above all else, we hope the series will educate readers and writers alike on the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, religion and the press, as well as the right to assemble and petition the government.
May 2: What is the First Amendment? What isn’t the First Amendment?
May 3: The impact of the internet and social media on free speech principles.
May 4: Differences between news and opinion.
May 5: How does the reporting process work?
May 6: Craft a great letter to the editor.
May 7: Exercising First Amendment rights in the real world.
The project stems from concerns from news media and news consumers alike. Journalists are worried by what some in our industry feel is a decay of news literacy: How to read the news and understand what, exactly, is being presented. As consumers are bombarded with content, the line between opinion and news begins to blur. Authenticity, verification and facts dissipate as questionable content is posted, tweeted and sent to the masses. The result, at least for some, is a growing distrust of news sources, even if news sources aren’t necessarily to blame for the questionable content.
It’s a disturbing trend.
Consider a 2017 study conducted at the University of Illinois, which concluded that “the more you know about the news media and how it works, the less likely you are to believe conspiracy theories.”
Now would be an opportune time to admit that even Forum Communications’ image could use some work. A recent survey that polled readers throughout the company’s footprint showed that 84% of respondents said neutral/unbiased news is important, but 60% said we perform well in the category.
We did much better in other relevant categories, getting a 78% score in “accurate/factually correct” and a 78% in “credible/trustworthy.” Considering attitudes toward the media these days, we consider these scores commendable yet worthy of continued focus.
We at FCC strive to present our news factually and without bias, but we realize some readers simply don’t understand how the process works or, importantly, the key points of the First Amendment.
We firmly believe that to actively engage in democracy requires consideration from both sides: The news media and its faithful, yet often skeptical, consumers. Trustworthy news and, yes, even opinion pieces — editorials, columns and letters to the editor — help us stay informed while promoting healthy dialogue and, in the end, more informed conclusions and beliefs.
And when that happens, perhaps we can grow just a smidgen closer, rather than farther apart.
Too utopian or idealistic? Is it beyond hope in an increasingly divided and angry society?
But listen to Kathy.
“We are supposed to be respectful of differences and tolerant of varying opinions,” she wrote. “The web world is allowed to edit out the ‘truths’ they don’t believe in. We are supposed to be respectful of differences and tolerant of varying opinions but instead we are being polarized into separate boxes.”
She concluded: “Find joy. Give joy.”
Amen to that, Kathy.
Korrie Wenzel is publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.