The Planted Row: Don’t blame the messenger

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Farm Forum

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution says it was, among other things, established “in order to form a more perfect union.” More perfect. That’s really what the business of government is about — finding better ways to do things. That’s really what the business of agriculture and life is all about — improvement, making things better. As my grandfather was fond of saying, “I’ve never seen a job that couldn’t have been done better.” That was his commitment to continuous improvement.

In order to improve, we have to make better decisions. In order to make better decisions, we need be informed on all the facts. How do we stay informed?

As a farmer, my grandfather made sure to read all the unbiased, scientifically-conducted studies conducted by the Extension experiment stations in our state. To stay informed on matters of community and government, my grandfather read his daily newspaper religiously. It was the first thing he did every morning before going to the field. Every evening, he ate dinner, showered, and then sat down to watch the local and national news programs before bed.

The man was committed to staying informed, and he relied upon journalists for that information.

Usually, journalists just report the story, but this recent election has turned journalists into the story. Throughout the election journalists were vilified, accused of lying and not telling the whole story. That sentiment seemed to reach a climax last week when a Reuters wire photo began making the rounds on social media. The photo depicted a man at a Minneapolis rally wearing a T-shirt that read, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” Maybe it’s just because I come from Mississippi where lynching is most definitely not a joke, but this image hit me like a punch to the gut.

I’m not your typical journalist. I grew up on a farm. I was never involved with my high school or college newspaper. In college, I studied English literature, not news writing. Before starting at the Farm Forum in 2012, I worked in book publishing. So, let me tell you what surprised me when I started working in this newsroom which also contains reporters and editors for the American News. These people are absolutely committed to providing accurate information to their readers. When I was publishing books, if we noticed an error in a book after it was printed, we made a note to fix it if the book went into a second printing. But otherwise, there wasn’t much we could do. We couldn’t reprint the book. We simply had to live with it, and that’s usually what we did without losing too much sleep.

When I started working in this newsroom, I assumed people would mostly shrug their shoulders at an error in the newspaper. After all, they will print another paper the next day and have a chance to set the record straight with a correction.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Errors, everything from misspelled names to misquotes to any sort of factual error, are big deals in this newsroom. The people who commit errors have to fill out forms, and the errors are tracked. Too many errors will have a journalist in a tense meeting with his or her boss very quickly.

Because they’re human, journalists make mistakes, but from what I’ve seen, those mistakes are mostly made while trying to do the right thing. The journalists I know work hard to find the truth, even if many people won’t like that truth. It’s a point of pride for them. The pay isn’t great. They are reviled by many. But they can go home at night and say they told the truth, or did their very best to do so.

Yes, there are news outlets with political biases. Yes, some people who call themselves journalists are really just commentators. To find the truth, the burden is on us to pay attention to the journalists who are trying to do their job well. How do we do that? Some sources are more reputable than others. Use the reputable sources. Also, if a news source only gives you information that is either mostly aligned with or mostly in opposition to your set of beliefs, that’s a good indication it is biased. Look for the news outlets that try to tell you both sides of an argument. Look for journalists who quote their sources. Make sure those sources are reputable. If a journalist is giving you facts and figures, make sure those come from an unbiased source. Learn to tell the difference between fact and opinion. Avoid fake news stories on social media. If something seems outrageous, independently verify it with a fact-checking site before sharing it with others.

This staying informed thing? It’s an active process, not a passive one. Before you start making jokes about killing the very people who are trying to give you the information you need to make good decisions, please make sure you’re an active participant in the process. And for the love of all things holy, please make sure you aren’t just upset because you’ve heard a truth you’d rather not confront. A journalist’s job isn’t to tell you what you want to hear. A journalist’s job is to tell you the truth.

If we’re going to make better decisions, if we’re going to continue to form a more perfect union, we’re going to need informed citizens, and we’re going to need journalists to help keep them informed.