May 8, 2008

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if the media was responsible for snipers? Now Iím not saying that newspaper or television stations are training terrorists, but as more and more journalistic endeavors add public blogs and open access for unrestricted commentary I do believe we are facilitating character assassination at the very least.

In the digital era, our news is becoming much more readily available, not only in measures of time, but also in ability for consumers to interact. I believe this can be a good thing.

The Memphis Democrat encourages our readers to be active in reporting the news and also ask for consumers to feel free to share their opinions with us and the public.

The latter can be done by any author willing to follow a few simple guidelines, the most important of which, is signing your name at the completion of a letter to the editor.

The opinion piece can not make false statements of fact. The truth will set you free, and also will save a newspaper from a lawsuit. Nor can an opinion piece slander or libel an individual or entity. Granted, this is the gray area for most, particularly when government or public figures are involved as the law offers less protection to suchÖ the price of fame I guess.

A common misconception is that a letter to the editor must meet with the editorís approval. Note to prospective writers, that would really limit our editorial pool, if authors had to agree with the newspaper ownerís opinion all the time. Thatís why we put that little disclaimer on the editorial page from time to time, denoting that these opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions of the newspaper itself.

Sorry that may be a little confusing. Hereís the policy in a nutshell Ė donít lie, and donít make unverifiable accusations against others, and most importantly sign your name at the bottom.

You take away that final step and all the other rules go out the window. To me, this is the linchpin for the entire process. If you want to use my medium to share your thoughts with the public, the least you can do is put your name behind your opinion.

To often today, that isnít the case. With public message boards and open commentary found on more and more websites, including more and more media outlets, journalists are falling prey to the bottom line, trying to keep the public happy while destroying an important principal (not to mention the outlets integrity if you ask me).

I donít waste a lot of time on such message boards, nor do I give much thought to the anonymous comments found behind many of todayís news stories. Thatís because nearly every time I do, I get aggravated by what I see.

Such forums are free game for character assassinations and blatant misinformation. Iím not saying that is all these types of outlets are good for, but at least this is a very unattractive side effect.

I often get news tips via e-mail. Many times these are simply links to local stories that have been broken by various other area media outlets.

I was looking at one such submission a few weeks ago and was shocked by the public commentary that followed the news story.

Sure I was appalled by some of the content, but I was far more discouraged that such material was even allowed by the media outlet, and then was located just lines below the real news.

Just inches below the facts as presented by the television station was totally wrong information signed by local bystander or some other fictitious pen name.

So this outlet where people turn for the news, is spreading anything but the news. People always joke that you canít believe everything you read in the newspaper. Well I hope they keep that thought in mind when viewing such garbage as is often disguised as news on these types of forums.

People should be free to share their opinions. But your right to freedom of expression ends at the tip of my nose. Thatís what slander and libel laws are all about.

The media is supposed to work to protect the public from such crimes, not openly promote the offenses by offering up their viewers, listeners or readers to anonymous opinion that they obviously could care less about being fair or even factual.

Do these media outlets not have a legal advisor? Maybe the law has changed since I went to journalism school, but I was always taught that the author bears the bulk of the responsibility in libel and slander cases, but when none exists then it seems like the outlet takes the brunt of the prosecution.

My philosophy remains Ė if you donít believe in what you are saying enough to sign your name to it, then it isnít worth the paper it is written on, or in this case the message board, comment post, digital blogÖ

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