Column: We can disagree without devolving

By Lisa Pett

I don’t disagree with the editor of the Point/Plover Metro Wire about the state of local news. I, too, look back fondly on growing up in a town with multiple local papers. Printed and delivered and read, and reread. 

Those days are long gone. The corporatization of local papers, the drying up of advertising dollars, and the ubiquity of “Facebook News” have all but wiped out the kind of everyday, boots-on-the-ground reporting the Metro Wire provides.  

But I’m not here to talk about the loss of local news, even though I will tip my hat to anyone who is still trying to make it work in the age of digital news, click-bait, “fake news” accusations, and the inability of people to write a decent press release.

The worst part of all of this is the increasing lack of trust and understanding between the public and the media. I apologize for pointing fingers but only one side literally ran for office against the “Lame-Stream Media” and “Fake News.” 

Prior to the war on facts, prior to the war on science and reason, people used to be able to recognize the difference between a news story and an op-ed piece. Citizens, regardless of political party, used to read articles by journalists they actually disagreed with—without attacking the person.

Politicians, elected officials, public servants, and other officials used to provide access to facts, off-the-record background, on-the-record quotes, and interviews, willingly to journalists of all stripes seeking information. 

It wasn’t a perfect system. Plenty of officials reply, “No comment.” And that’s okay. That is what a professional does. Not everything a journalist writes is going to be 100 percent correct. They try. It’s often better when they have another editor reviewing their work (and someone who will answer for it if the facts are reported incorrectly).

But we don’t even have enough reporters in the community, let alone editors in the newsroom. Hell, we don’t even have a newsroom anymore.

I disagree with the editor of the Metro Wire a lot. I disagree with columnist Dan Kontos ALL THE TIME. I always respond in writing, as professionally and politely as possible (Okay, I try).

Nobody in their right mind should expect a free copy of an article for which they provided facts. Nobody in their right mind should try to refute an article in the comments section of a Facebook post. But I watch it happen. Day after day, it plays out on social media like a car crash I can’t turn away from.

The real fundamental problem in Portage County is the obvious lack of trust between elected officials, public servants, and the local media. I don’t know how to help rebuild that trust. I wish I did. The only thing I can do is to remind people that not every article you disagree with is fake. Not all facts are equal. Specious reasoning and a Google search is not your best weapon.

If you’re running for office, consider your social media presence. Don’t respond to trolls, insults, and jibes. Also, don’t accuse people of lying or malfeasance without proof. Don’t lob personal statements at a reporter in the midst of an ongoing political battle with a village’s legal counsel and end up as a ridiculous quote of the week.

The old saying was, “don’t get into a public fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” The modern equivalent of that is “don’t put personal insults in emails with people who pay for bandwidth by the terabyte.”

The Metro Wire is far from the most perfect organization out there. But at least they are trying. That is something nobody else—left or right, conservative or liberal—has stepped up and taken the chance to BE.

I will continue to disagree with the editor. In letters to the editor, in op-ed pieces, in columns, and in person. But I pay for a subscription. And if I am interviewed or provide any information for a story, it doesn’t mean I get free rein in the comments section or get to refute what’s written in a social media post.

We need to be better. To get better, we need to trust people who do not think like us. We need to stop attacking people in the middle and work towards a solution. Be civil. Be professional. 

I know we can do it.

Lisa Pett lives with her family in Hull.

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