Sunday, February 27, 2011

Discretion and censorship

What’s the difference between publisher’s discretion and censorship?

Some would argue that any decision not to publish something submitted to the newspaper that fits strict legal requirements is simple censorship. We see it differently.

Americans are increasingly accustomed to having places to say pretty much anything they want. Many newspapers have accommodated this as well, placing no restrictions on their web site message boards. We’re trying a different approach.

We don’t expect everyone who writes a letter to the editor or a guest column or who posts to our message board to be a journalist and meet journalistic standards. However, we don’t want to be the vehicle for spreading blatantly false or misleading information.

This brings us to nullification, the term chosen by supporters of the idea that states can simply ignore certain federal laws -- the new health care plan, most specifically. There’s a better word for nullification -- lawlessness.

I won’t get into the Constitutional debate here. To us, the issue boils down to how we define our responsibilities as journalists. While providing a place for citizens to debate the issues of the day is among our highest priorities, it’s not as simple as just publishing everything we get.

There’s a certain value to publishing outrageous speech. For one thing, it exposes that speech to the light of day, to the “marketplace of ideas,” where it can receive an open debate. There’s a lot to be said for that. Attempts to scrub that speech clean -- what has cynically been referred to being “politically correct” -- can do a good deal of harm.

On the other hand, there’s a strong argument in favor of insisting on a modicum of civility and standard of accuracy. At some point, a newspaper has the responsibility to assert some minimum standards.

Among the ethical standards established by the Society of Professional Journalists is this: “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.” Clearly, this is intended for reporters, but it also suggests that publishers and editors have a responsibility for what they publish regardless of its source. That includes the public forums.

This position isn’t universal among journalists. Some favor a no-holds-barred policy. There was a time when I felt that way, too. However, as information -- both good and bad -- flows more freely, its accuracy has become more difficult to discern. That circumstance, it seems to me, increases the responsibility of newspapers to apply stricter standards.

We have neither the time nor the resources to confirm the veracity of every tidbit of information we receive. But we can still attempt to screen out material that is obviously and blatantly wrong. We’re giving it our best shot.

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