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Editor's view: Free speech is a right -- and a responsibility

It's not unusual for a newsroom to agonize over words. Words are powerful and often have a peculiar way of revealing split personalities when the ink dries, leaving interpretation to their innumerable beholders. Put words spoken by sources inside...

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Rick Lubbers
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It's not unusual for a newsroom to agonize over words.

Words are powerful and often have a peculiar way of revealing split personalities when the ink dries, leaving interpretation to their innumerable beholders.

Put words spoken by sources inside quotation marks and they gather even more mysterious powers.

So, agonizing over words becomes part of our everyday job. It's a responsibility we don't take lightly.

That's why it's distressing to witness another media outlet using words carelessly, without bearing that weight of journalistic responsibility.

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As reported in Saturday's News Tribune , the student-run newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, the Promethean, recently published what its editor said was an attempt at satire. A few of the published stories were offensive to some readers; the paper's blanket response to criticism has been their right to free speech.

Yes, there is free speech. There is freedom of the press. Those are beautiful things, and we enjoy the heck out of them every day within the DNT newsroom. But free speech and freedom of the press in no way mean freedom from responsibility.

But what is perhaps just as alarming is the wall the Promethean's editor and faculty adviser seem to have built around themselves. As of this writing, they have been unabashedly unapologetic to their readers and fellow students in the small UWS community.

The primary duties of a newspaper are to acquire and share information, and communicate with its readers. Simply hiding behind a "freedom of speech" mantra is neither sharing information nor communicating responsibly.

Newspapers are entrusted to cover their communities as fairly, responsibly and truthfully as possible. It's a relationship not unlike a good friendship. But friendships don't last long when they include conversations that are hurtful, tone-deaf and/or one-sided, with no dialogue or - when warranted - contrition.

It's one thing to report on something, or to write an opinion, that is going to be unpopular with readers; it's entirely another to write something with the stated intent of being hurtful to some of the people reading it. What the staff of the Promethean did may have been within their rights - but it demonstrated a distinct lack of responsibility.

Journalists are human and can make mistakes and errors in judgment, as anybody working any type of job knows. And that's when another part of a newspaper's responsibility kicks in - acknowledging those mistakes to the readers and the community.

Whether they are mistakes of omission or commission, the first and best steps toward repairing trust are owning those mistakes, correcting them and making sure steps are put in place to avoid them in the future.

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When you're putting out a paper there are sure to be a few differing opinions. And, thankfully, readers often aren't shy about sharing those differing opinions.

But regardless of whether the paper stands behind a particular decision or hindsight gives it new light, those conversations between the paper and the community still need to happen.

That's tough to do in our age of social media rage and political name-calling, where arguments are "won" by being the loudest, rudest and crudest voice in the room. Civil discourse and friendly disagreements are truly endangered species.

It's important that newspapers - professional and college - strive to encourage healthy communication and debate in print and online, and between themselves and the communities they serve.

Agonizing over words is important - before and after they go to print.

 

Contact News Tribune editor Rick Lubbers at rlubbers@duluthnews.com or (218) 723-5301. Follow him on Twitter @ricklubbersdnt .

Opinion by Rick Lubbers
Rick Lubbers has been in his role since 2014 and at the News Tribune since 2005. Previous stops include the Superior Telegram (1999-2005) and Budgeteer News (1997-1999). Prior to that, he worked at the St. Cloud Times and Annandale Advocate in Minnesota, and the Greenville Daily News and Grand Rapids Press in Michigan. He received his journalism degree at Central Michigan University.
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