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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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Public editor: Do readers want just the facts? Add to ...

Here are some readers’ thoughts on my Saturday column, which said that journalism is evolving, and experienced reporters should be free to use their knowledge to explain and analyze what is happening and why.

I will start with a positive one who agreed with my opinion. “I doubt that any news medium that reported only ‘facts’ would survive long. Just by way of example, Monday’s report by Steven Chase of Harper’s northern tour reported/commented that Harper made his ‘tour remarks – which sounded more like a stump speech – at a Conservative party barbeque.’ The insertion is, I suppose, Mr. Chase’s opinion, but is the kind of comment that enriches a report. Readers who want ‘only the facts’ should be careful what they wish for. … The Globe is the paper it is because of its writers, with whom one may agree or not.”

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Here is another view: “Everyone, we are told, is entitled to their own opinion, whether informed or uninformed. Such opinions are so different and distinct; we need a new vocabulary to distinguish between the two. Opinions that are uninformed should not be so dignified. An informed opinion is a precious resource; an uninformed opinion may be dangerous, particularly when masquerading as authoritative. An opinion, by definition, falls short of certainty. An informed opinion strives for certainty; the uniformed opinion lives by the motto: don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is made up.

“Several years ago, the late NYU journalism professor Neil Postman described a pathway to informed opinion: Information – Fact – Knowledge – Wisdom – Opinion. Your heading – ‘Just the facts ... plus’ – says the same thing concisely. Too often we hear and read predetermined opinion which proceeded backward to selected misinformation or disinformation for justification and persuasive force. To follow Postman’s pathway; first, all available information should be processed to distill out fact or truth. It is necessary to achieve an informed opinion to know and understand the facts rather than merely parrot petty-partisan distortions that feed an existing bias. Applying wisdom to the process is to use judgment based on experience, a value system, prudence and trusted sagacity. At this point, two people who know and understand the issues equally well may diverge to different opinions based on ingrained moral or amoral influences that divide. That is politics. That division, having been recognized, makes for a level of progressive debate sadly lacking in the current morass of egregious distortions and mind-numbing rhetoric, intended only to fan fires rather that find solutions to matters of societal concern; proving the old adage: ‘two monologues do not make a debate’.

“Come to think of it, we already have a word for uninformed opinion; it is a prejudice.”

Here’s a note from a reader who disagreed, arguing that what readers want is the facts. “To me a good journalist first attempts to get the facts straight. Then if the issue is an honest debate, the journalist should outline both sides of the argument in the article and allow the reader to decide who has the better case. In addition, there are too many of these so-called polls, surveys and research papers of dubious quality that show up in your paper. Those papers that support the journalists’ personal views are used without clearly stating where the information comes from…. Any journalist who uses the information without question is not being professional…. Do you ever canvas your journalists about what they read and study over the year? Most have a weak grasp of history in general and Canadian history in particular. They all seem to write with the historical competency of a first-year journalism student.”

One online commenter raised this issue: At what point does a reporter become qualified? “Is that moment fixed in some Globe style manual?” the reader asked. The answer is there is no fixed time and it is a judgment call made by the editors, who deal with such questions every day.

In my Saturday column, I raised the issue about clearly marking articles that include a reporter’s analysis or a columnist’s opinion. I said I believed that most readers generally understood, in the paper and on globeandmail.com, the difference between those types of articles and straight news coverage (although it was not clear enough, especially in mobile versions).

“I dislike saying this,” one reader said, “but I think you give the public too much credit for the ability to differentiate between analysis and commentary; especially because of social media and the lack of teaching critical thinking in our schools.”

I would be interested in hearing from you, whether you agree or disagree. Please leave a comment or send me an email at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

 

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