Good and fair journalism is unnatural.
It's natural for people to doubt information that goes against what they already think and believe and accept the opposite. Doubting others who are different and trusting others who are similar — classic human. Pushing away information that's uncomfortable and scary and accepting what's easy and safe is common. Psychology is filled with names for these archetypal tendencies: confirmation bias, in-group bias, the backfire effect, fundamental attribution errors, on and on they go.
Good and fair journalism isn't just a tangible thing, like a specific article. It's a process, an attempt to break out of what's natural, to seek out information that's uncomfortable as well as comfortable, people who disagree as well as who agree, people who are different and who are similar.
Good and fair journalism finds and presents many sides of contentious stories — there are so often more than two — and gives a genuine representation of what those sides say and do. Rather than somehow stunting or warping certain arguments or viewpoints, it takes care to leave them intact.
My professional performance as an editor and writer has come under criticism in this Opinion section, so here's a description of how I tried to reach this goal in a recent article on U.S. Rep. Angie Craig's vote to impeach President Donald Trump. The story included about a dozen different perspectives and sources of information, in order of appearance:
- Craig, a Democrat who said Trump abused his power.
- Rick Olson, a Republican challenger to Craig who agreed with her vote.
- Trump, a Republican who has said he did nothing wrong and wants to fight corruption in Ukraine.
- An administration whistleblower report that said Trump used his office for personal gain in a conversation with Ukraine's president.
- A memo from the Trump White House describing that conversation.
- Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat whom Trump accuses of corruption and who denies wrongdoing.
- Gordon Sondland, the Trump-appointed ambassador to Europe.
- Fiona Hill, a former national security adviser for Trump and other presidents.
- Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator and outspoken Trump supporter in this issue.
- Jonathan Turley, a professor and expert witness called by Republicans in Congress who criticized Trump but said Democrats didn't have enough of a case for impeachment.
- Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader who also supports Trump.
- The Scott County GOP, which supports Trump and called impeachment a complete waste of time.
- Ken Martin, chairman of the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, who called impeachment sad but necessary.
Good and fair journalism shows its work and cites its sources so that we can all see where the opinions and facts it contains came from. It gives context, such as the history leading to the events at hand and what might come next. It includes the relevant people, filling in the story's mosaic of characters and showing how they fit together.
Good and fair journalism makes judgments. It favors facts and reputable sources, documentation and data. It avoids libel and defamation.
Defamation doesn't mean facts that might make a place or person look bad. It doesn't mean insults or unkind names or criticism. It means false statements written to look like facts and accusations of crimes without reliable evidence.
Good and fair journalism seeks and demands this evidence of wrongdoing. It's a worthwhile standard without the threat of legal punishment, but it's also worth pointing out that newspapers are also liable for libel from others. We don't get to tell a court after we're sued that we just faithfully repeated someone else's defamation.
Good and fair journalism is always incomplete, never finished. Every story can't be an encyclopedia, so a good deal of information has to be summarized, briefly referenced or simply left out for now. Every story has flaws and paths that could wind differently. There is perpetually more to read and hear, more work to do for journalists and readers alike.
In the end, good and fair journalism is also the most natural thing. It's setting out into our communities and world with curiosity and principle and humanity. Look for that.