Why we believe in telling people the truth

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IN RECENT days the Beloit Daily News published a number of articles that sparked strong reactions in the community.

Among the articles were in-depth reports of ongoing conflicts within the School District of Beloit Board of Education, culminating in the resignation of three members; disputes over whether to replace the current interim superintendent in the district with an outside candidate; past performance reviews for the current interim superintendent; a testy exchange between a candidate for Rock County sheriff and the current sheriff, related to the candidate's personnel history; and a story detailing that two command staff officers in the Beloit Police Department use city-owned vehicles to commute back-and-forth from their homes in Milwaukee.

For us, that's just another week or so in the life of the Beloit Daily News. It's what we do and why we're here.

For some readers and citizens, though, it has been cause to engage in hot discussion and debate and, sometimes, take a few shots at the newspaper.

IN NORMAL times, we customarily have been content to move on to the next stories while others draw their own conclusions and have their say.

But these are not normal times.

Not when journalists find themselves derided at the highest levels of the nation as "enemies of the people."

Not when a right-wing online provocateur posted he couldn't wait "for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight," and a Maryland newsroom was shot up resulting in five deaths.

Not when more and more people in polls say they get their "news" from social media.

Not when Facebook and other social media platforms find themselves admitting before Congress they let foreign agents and others flood their platforms with actual fake news, distorting and undermining democracy and elections, not to mention allowing wholesale diversion of personal data.

Not when cable television has sliced and diced for profit the viewing audience by political preference, so conservatives never have to hear anything they don't want to on Fox News, and liberals have it likewise on MSNBC.

NO, IN these times, journalistic organizations ought to be more willing to explain why we do what we do, and why it matters to the people.

This is our mission: Find facts, to the best of our ability, and trust people to be given the information.

On most days, one definition we apply toward that mission is finding the facts about situations that are in some way out of the ordinary. The late Walter Cronkite once put it this way, "People aren't interested in the cat that didn't get lost." That's as good a definition as any. The routine generates small news notice, if any. When something goes beyond the boundaries of routine, we pay more attention.

Judging by comments and criticism we receive, sometimes readers believe such coverage scandalizes a given situation. We dispute that.

For example, factually reporting the various goings-on in the school district has sparked all kinds of reactions. We've heard everything from applause to anger.

Likewise, reporting on the two long-distance commuters at the police department sparked spirited dialogue, ranging from some defending the reports to others ripping the newspaper.

SO WE pose this question: Would the people of the community rather not know?

In the news columns of the paper we consider it our mission to report with the greatest accuracy possible on matters - particularly about public policy, funded by tax dollars - that could engage community interest. Our policy is to present the facts without drawing conclusions, trusting citizens of the community to make up their own minds when armed with the truth.

Sure, sometimes we make a mistake. Everybody does. But our stories are deeply researched and closely vetted and mistakes of material fact are relatively few. And when we are informed about an error in fact we take seriously the obligation to correct it in print and online.

We do express opinions on some topics. When we do it's right here, on a page aptly and prominently labeled "Opinion." Unlike cable programs or talk radio where such lines are blurred, we stick to facts in news columns and clearly tell readers when they are reading opinion on a separate page.

LIKE WE said, these are not normal times, so we thank those faithful readers who understand and appreciate the difference between journalism and fake news.

Citizens need to recognize the difference.

In Beloit, and in America, we are convinced citizens should be given, and be trusted with, the unvarnished facts and the truth. If some want to bash us over the head for trying to do that, well, bash away.

Count us among those who still believe people are better off knowing than not knowing. In this system of government the more people know the better it is for democracy, so folks can decide for themselves if school boards are performing to suit them, or if candidates deserve their support, or if take-home vehicle policies are justifiable.

After all, it's your government, and we still believe democracy requires informed people to exercise oversight.

William R. Barth is the Editor of the Beloit Daily News.

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