The earth, relatively speaking, is round, not flat.
Had I written that sentence back in my days of news reporting with The Associated Press, I might have been tempted to say, "The earth, relatively speaking, is round, not flat, authorities said."
That's a bit of a joke. I wouldn't have added official-source attribution, although AP attributed nearly everything. I wouldn't have had to add "authorities said," either, if I had written that the sun rose this morning in the east. That's a given, right? No attribution needed? And I wouldn't be required to write "is expected to set in the west," even though as I write this at mid-day I can't say the world will even exist at sunset. Odds are good it will. Some things simply are so.
I've been considering the round earth and other truths since I traveled to Brookings last week for a discussion about the book "Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism" by Thomas E. Patterson. Patterson received his undergraduate degree from South Dakota State University. He was a couple of years ahead of me at State, and as I told the book group, I knew him the way the reserve center on the sophomore team knows the starting guard on the varsity. I knew him better than he knew me.
Patterson has been teaching and writing at Harvard University for several years. "Informing the News" was selected as the South Dakota Humanities Council's 2018 "One Book South Dakota.'' Groups of citizens have been reading and discussing it as we did in Brookings the other day. The Humanities Council also joined with the South Dakota Newspaper Association for a series of public forums, "Democracy and the Informed Citizen,'' an initiative focused on information literacy, public trust and the press. The topic will be a significant part of this year's South Dakota Festival of Books this weekend in Brookings.
One goal of the initiative is to encourage citizens to evaluate the information they read and see, to ask whether some piece of information is factual or false, as well as whether it is important or trivial. You also might say the initiative encourages citizens to leave their news/information comfort zones. Someone who watches only Fox, for example, might give MSNBC a try and vice versa. Not a permanent switch but another view. Someone who reads only columnist Dana Milbank might give George Will a look, not to believe without question what either columnist writes but to be open to other ideas and opinions.
I came of age as a news reporter at a time when objectivity was prized above all else. My first boss with the AP, Jim Wilson, used to say, "We don't report truth. We report facts, as many of them as we can uncover. If we give people enough facts, they'll figure out what's true." Of course, Jim said that in a time when three networks provided most of the television news and when most people read newspapers faithfully. More outlets disseminate information these days, and it's more difficult than ever to figure out what information is deliberately misleading or outright false.
Jim worked at a time when reporters considered it balanced and objective to use a "one side, the other side'' sort of reporting. For example, in legislative reporting, if I wrote about a tax bill and talked with a proponent, I would seek out someone who opposed the bill or the concept of the bill. That balanced the story.
In an age of so much false information and misinformation, balance might not always work. That's one of the discussions in Patterson's book. For example, if a reporter writes something about the earth being round, should the story necessarily include a comment from someone who says it's flat? Or should a reporter, confidently armed with knowledge, use that knowledge to craft a story that is factual without including a wacky opposing view?
I'm pretty old school, so I don't know how I'd function in a reporting world without "one side, the other side.'' I like the idea of talking about it, though, and I like the idea of including as many people in the conversation as possible.