Civil discourse not sexy, but it can lead to solutions
Tuesday, July 08, 2014 11:11 AM
A couple months ago, Merwood Storhoff of Lanesboro submitted a letter to the editor in response to a previous letter about frac sand mining in the Bluff Country Reader. He expressed his frustrations in the letter regarding the lack of enforcement of mining ordinances by county officials.
We felt the letter came on a bit too strong, so I worked with him to remove some of the personal accusations that could detract from his message and focus on the issues. Much to my surprise - and apparently to his as well - the letter was the focus of a Fillmore County board meeting soon after it was published.
Just last week, I received a follow-up from Storhoff, thanking us for the help with the letter, noting that "more was accomplished with that letter than four years of personally working" with specific county officials he named.
The real credit should go to Storhoff, though, as he took the time to express his opinion and was agreeable in modifying it slightly when given a good reason to do so. Also, county officials should get credit for responding to public criticism with a solution rather than slinging barbs back at Storhoff or ignoring him altogether.
It was a win for all involved.
What we did in this case isn't any different than what we do with all our news and opinions in the newspaper and online. We don't just take submissions of news or opinion and slap them in our publications without reviewing them.
We try, not always entirely successfully, to make each story or opinion piece clear, accurate, fair and purposeful while also making it transparent where the information originated. We feel it is our responsibility, a standard not shared by all media.
Our attempt to offer thoughtful news and opinion isn't always appreciated because it just isn't as exciting as finding juicy nuggets in the garbage spewed out elsewhere in the world. At times, our more old-fashioned approach can open us up to criticism or a perceived lack of engagement with the community.
For example, we don't emphasize extreme commentary on our opinion page with views of a tiny minority in an attempt to get a rise out of a certain group. The other strategy does get more letters, primarily from those offended or who are in disbelief, but we would rather focus on quality opinions that speak to a broader audience and contribute to civil discourse on important issues that involve the daily lives of people.
Our philosophy of seeking the thoughtful exchange of ideas extends to our online presence. Our reluctance to allow anonymous comments may again give the appearance that we lack community engagement since we don't have as many comments, but we feel it contributes to real engagement because our readers know that the opinions are from genuine people.
With anonymous comments, the opinions are always going to be suspect. A person can say who he is and what he believes, but there is always a question of sincerity when hiding behind the shield of secrecy.
It has been suggested that in organizations that allow anonymous comments, staff members or even the owner have contributed anonymously to either defend the newspaper or keep the conversation going.
When it is all conducted behind a veil, who is to say that isn't true? After all, the purpose isn't to advance civil discourse or shine a light on the truth, but rather to get eyes looking at a stream of drivel that springs from the light of unknown computer screens by, quite possibly, shady individuals. Anything is "fair" when the goal is to merely attract attention.
The difference in philosophies is similar to the difference between a public debate in which issues are discussed by known people and gossip that spreads from one person to another without anyone really knowing the source or even if it is true.
The debate won't attract as much attention, but it will lead to a deeper understanding of the issues that affect our lives. The gossip doesn't contribute to or lead to a better understanding of anything, but it is deeply alluring, something we often can't turn our heads from.
Gossip has a place, just not in the world of our news media. We'd rather stick to verified information by authentic people that further the civil discourse necessary to navigate our increasingly complex world.
You can be a part of that discourse by offering your opinion. All you need to do is stick to the issues, identify yourself and take the time to contribute.
We won't promise you will have the same success as Storhoff, but we will do our part to create an environment that is respectful with an audience that appreciates genuine feedback, even if the opinion runs counter to the interests of some of the audience, as was the case with the county officials.