RECENTLY, I read a thought-provoking column by one of my favorite newspaper writers, Leonard Pitts. Actually, that’s redundant because every column Pitts writes provokes thought.
In his column he refers to what he calls “internet courage.” He is, of course, referring to the anonymity of many email authors. They hide behind the invisibility and protection of a “no physical location” requirement for Internet users and say whatever truth/untruth they advocate and there is little you can do to dissuade them, derail them or, most favorably, punish them. I liken that “bravery” to drinking the courage of dizzying, numbing alcohol.
It is my firm belief, that people should stand behind their beliefs and the subsequent onslaught of those who would/will oppose what you write. With the establishment of “authority” the Internet offers a forum that requires no connection to some pretty far-fetched, cockamamie declarations.
And, let it be known, I believe in people’s right to express their feelings about public events, public officials, policy and/or questions, as long as they do it responsibly.
I have been offering my opinions for more than 50 years, first as a community newspaperman, then as a columnist for two dozen small town newspapers. While I don’t expect everyone to agree with my stance on particular issues, I do expect recognition of the fact that with all of that experience, I just might have a pretty informed basis for such positions.
Newspaper reporters, writers, columnists and editors are required to know something about a multitude of subjects. In addition, we are taught the very great and grave importance of facts — truths — that go into reporting the news.
If you write something that is not provable and it causes hurt and/or damage to someone’s reputation, or to their lives or capability to make a living, then the writer and the publication are subject to certain laws regarding slander and libel.
WE ARE NOT permitted the luxury of anonymity, particularly those of us who write “opinion pieces” such as this column. Most columnists are like me in that they strive to inform and/or entertain readers. There are columnists for some newspapers, particularly metropolitan dailies, who spend all their time and effort in uncovering shady and crooked dealings and exposing those who thrust these wrongdoings on an unsuspecting public. And, they have to be able to back up every word they write or they subject the newspaper and themselves to the aforementioned slander and libel laws.
Every newspaper with which I’ve ever been associated has been adamant with its reporters and editors that they have several reliable and provable sources for anything they write, particularly if that information can be damaging to someone’s reputation, their business or their very lives.
I’ve been working in this business since I was 10, as a carrier, until 18, when I became a reporter-writer and subsequently a columnist, editor and publisher.
There have been periods of time when the media — newspapers, magazines, radio and television — were heavily involved in muckraking and screaming headlines. Although many segments of today’s media fall into that category, community newspapers are not given to irresponsible reporting and writing.
Their reporters, editors and columnists have to be more careful and thorough in what they report and write. We are writing to a vastly more sophisticated reading audience than ever before. There are now more laws to protect against libel and slander than ever before. The education level today — both the reading public and the media reporters, writers and editors — is far beyond what it was in those times of massive muckraking.
IF A newspaper makes assertions and allegations of wrong-doing, you can safely assume that the reporters, writers and editors have painstakingly done their homework, that they have the facts to back the story, stories and/or opinion pieces written about some controversial subject or event.
We must all also remember that newspapers are guardians of all kinds of freedoms and are seekers of truth and justice, especially with regard to public officials who are supposed to serve us all.
And, you can be assured that reporters and editors don’t imbibe in dizzying, wrong-headed reporting. The stakes are too high — both for the reading public and for the media — for it to be otherwise.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor—publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.