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Good opinion journalism demands good reporting

It’s been a turbulent year for facts.

They’ve been manipulated, concealed and denied. Cherry-picked. Conveniently ignored. Shouted from the rooftops only to crash-land on deaf ears. Their very definition as pieces of indisputable evidence has been stretched to allow room for “alternative facts,” better known as false information, and quality reporting dismissed as “fake news.”

Facts have had high points, as well. They’ve led to tremendous reporting from publications including the Washington Post and New York Times, both of which are seeing a significant boost in subscribers. And many of our nation’s journalists, even in the face of being labeled by their president as “enemies of the American people,” have remained anchored to an unwavering commitment to the truth and a collective unwillingness to be bullied by those in power.

When considering how we at The Oxford Eagle gather and present information in the newspaper, online and through our social media channels, there’s perhaps no better time to reaffirm our mission to serve this community through fair, independent reporting on all topics, across all platforms, including one of the most important elements of any newspaper: the opinion section.

Freedom of speech does not grant Americans consequence-free carte blanche to say whatever we want, however we want, regardless of whether it’s rooted in truth. While most speech is protected from government regulation and censorship, that doesn’t mean your boss can’t fire you if he doesn’t want to be associated with your message and it doesn’t mean your local newspaper has to publish something you write just because it’s your opinion.

Just as we produce news, sports and lifestyle reporting based on research, interviews and other means of fact-finding, opinion columnists and guest contributors must be expected to do the same. That means a commitment to rigorous research on a given topic and developing measured, thoughtful arguments rooted in fact and context. Being the loudest person in the room is not enough, especially during a time when divisive political rhetoric has become the weapon of choice used to attack facts and those who devote their days to finding them.

 

Community journalism thrives when it draws from as many perspectives as possible. Opinions, particularly those you don’t agree with, should at the very least make you think about an issue or topic beyond the confines of a 500-word column. Ideally, they result in a constructive conversation among readers and community members who are then able to elevate the discussion beyond a Facebook comment thread. When those opinions are derived from selective or substandard reporting, however, we must demand better of ourselves and our contributors.

These guidelines on deliberative journalism from the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin sum up our commitment to publishing quality opinion journalism and upholding the standards required to do so.

1. Commitment to evidence-based inquiry: Opinion should be rigorously based on a wide range of evidence, solid studies, and perspectives on the data. I am ready to follow the facts where they lead.
2. Commitment to the overall public good: Opinion should be guided by what is best for the public as a whole, not what is expedient for my cause or my political group. I should not be so attached to my “truth” that I am ready to use almost any means to persuade others and to promote my aims.
3. Commitment to telling the whole truth: Opinion should not hide inconvenient facts. I am not willing to distort the truth to suit my aims. I do not misrepresent the views of others or demonize them.
4. Commitment to listening and learning: Opinion journalism does more than just opine. It seeks discussion. It aims to develop better perspectives and positions on issues. It should evolve. Therefore, I should listen to others, and be willing to alter my position.

Our ultimate goal is for our opinion content to reflect a diverse and dynamic collection of perspectives and viewpoints on all topics relevant to the community. We cannot be a platform for propaganda or personal attacks. We are not here to give a voice to those pushing their own agendas without consideration for the public we’re obligated to serve.

We are lucky to serve a community anchored to education in every sense of the word, an engaged group of people firmly invested in the future of Oxford and Lafayette County. Our news organization aims to be the primary forum for that ongoing discussion, and we welcome submissions from anyone in the community who want to help us fulfill that mission.