Newspapers hold a key role in democracy

Those in the newspaper business carry an important, complex responsibility

As a columnist I know that I am not a journalist and thus ill-suited to expound on the nuts and bolts of the news profession.

So when I send in columns for publication, I’m reminded of what Mark Twain once said: “I am not the editor of a newspaper and shall always try to do right and be good so that God will not make me one.”

But though I may dabble on the fringes of journalism, I do know that our contributions form an important part of what makes up a newspaper.

In my case, I am a democracy apostle. Democracy is not a one-dimensional system of governance, it is a complex organism. Think of a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

Community newspapers are pieces of that puzzle. Governments cannot serve their communities along democratic principles without community newspapers. Newspapers are not precursors to the internet, to Facebook or to Twitter. The latter cannot take the place of newspapers; not at the national level nor at the community level.

If our age is indeed the information age, we need to keep in mind that newspaper is a compound word: it means news printed on paper, verifiable and permanent.

During my years in local government I learned to appreciate the democratic value of community newspapers and the contributions they make to effective and accountable government.

Community newspapers gave me useful perspectives on public opinion, public input, public pressure, and public responsibility. I learned to distinguish gossip passed along in social exchanges from opinions that ran the gauntlet of an editor’s scrutiny.

The role of a newspaper is to convey both facts and opinions to the community it serves. A fact is a w truth.

It is the editor’s responsibility to ensure that truth is confirmed before a statement is presented as a fact. An opinion (such as I am expounding here) is an idea related to or derived from one or more facts. Facts are a community newspaper’s main course; opinions are offered for dessert.

The Terrace Standard must ensure that a copy of the paper is delivered to every mailbox in the community. Local businesses who place their ads in the paper, and thus pay the bills of its publication, demand no less. The timely distribution of the paper, however, is not the editor’s chief responsibility (this is not a fact, it is my opinion).

Facts and opinions belong to the same currency, but they are not two sides of the same coin. A newspaper editor’s responsibilities are not those of a censor.

An editor cannot allow the community served by his newspaper to have any doubts about the nature of its content. The community must be able to rely on published facts without suspicion or doubt. In contrast to those facts, opinions not only may but must invite and encourage challenge.

What purpose is served by publishing an opinion which does not or cannot generate a debate? Why bother publishing an opinion which confirms what everybody already believes, an opinion which does not challenge readers to reflect and think? The editor’s responsibility in this regard is a tricky one.

An editor must ensure that citizens are informed about a multitude of facts, and challenged to reflect on thoughtful opinions relevant to life in the community. The main course must present facts relating to local matters concerning government, business, education, culture, social well-being, environment, and security.

The desserts the editor puts on offer are opinions relating to these facts. The challenge is to pick desserts that will enrich the experience of the meal. The efforts the editor dedicates to that challenge are his contribution to local democracy.

It is not enough for the editor to ensure that what is published as a fact is indeed real and not fake, he must also ensure that the opinions he picks for dessert will not spoil the main course.

With The Terrace Standard editor and publisher Rod Link now preparing to leave, I should like to say he did not publish every column I handed in. His rejections have undoubtedly saved me much embarrassment and for that I am indebted to him. We will miss him.

Retired public sector administrator Andre Carrel is a resident in Terrace, B.C.