- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

The Pine Bluff Commercial. Aug. 11, 2018.

One of the biggest challenges in the news business is gathering facts and putting them together to form a story.

Imagine if you had to write a research paper every day by 5 p.m.

Scary thought, isn’t it?

Well, it’s not scary for journalists, because that’s what we do. And we love our jobs.

Here at The Commercial, we always strive for accuracy in reporting. However, we sometimes make mistakes, as all newspapers do. We own up to them and correct them.

We thought we’d take a moment to explain how misinformation can find its way into a story. It can happen because a reporter misheard something a source told them. It can also happen because a source told them the wrong information.

The latter scenario happens more often than you would think. Even so, the newspaper is still responsible for the mistake in the minds of many people. In our defense, we cannot always know if someone is telling us information that isn’t completely factual.

We know that most sources don’t intentionally give the wrong information, it’s just that sometimes, especially when dealing with complex civic issues, there may be several sets of facts that are constantly in flux, such as the cost of a building project.

Additionally, when dealing with certain other organizations, such as police departments, there is only one person who gives out facts. That person is generally the public information officer or, in some cases, the chief him or herself.

Let’s say that an accident occurs on a busy intersection in the city. A reporter heads to the scene to take photographs and gather basic information. The public information officer tells the reporter that two cars were involved and one person was taken to the hospital.

That information is then transferred to readers via the newspaper’s website, print edition and social media.

Soon after the story hits the readers’ eyes, a person calls the newspaper and identifies themselves as a person who was in a third car that was involved in the accident. The third car had been towed away before the reporter arrived at the scene, and there was no information about a third car given to the reporter by the police department at the time of the accident.

We know that there was certainly no intention of the part of the police to misinform the public, it’s just that in the confusion of the scene, the fact about the third car was omitted.

But the person in the third car then begins to accuse the newspaper of “always getting things wrong.”

Of course, that statement is false.

A newspaper can only print the facts it is given. There are follow-ups to stories, but once misinformation is spread, all the corrections in the world can’t take back the initial impression that the newspaper “got it wrong,” even though it was not our intention, and even though we were given incorrect information.

We are not blaming any one single person for incorrect information that appears in this or any other publication. Information gathering is a complex process that can sometimes be disrupted due to the confusion of a fluid scene, such as the accident scenario described above. That’s why you sometimes notice at the end of a story or photo caption the words “this incident is still under investigation” or “as of press time, this is all the information officials were releasing.”

That is a way to tell readers that the story will likely change. But in our business, the paper has to go to press at a certain time, so we can’t always wait for the most recent updates. A follow-up, however, will be likely.

It is our job to do the best we can to find out the truth. Moreover, it’s our duty to you, the reader. And we can assure you that’s what we do each and every day, despite the critics who think we “always get it wrong.”

___

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Aug. 13, 2018.

It’s easy to breathe a sigh of relief at a judge’s decision to keep a Huntsville kid whose social media posting unnerved a school district from returning to school this fall.

Well, easy for everyone but the kid and his family.

The boy was expelled from Huntsville High School for a year on March 5 after he posted a photo to the social media service Instagram. In that photo, he’s wearing a trench coat and holding a rifle not unlike that used in multiple mass shootings in recent years. That his posting came 10 days after 17 people died in gun violence at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School certainly does little to help his cause.

And what’s his cause? To return to school for his senior year. To join his fellow runners in cross-country practice, which he had hoped might be a path to college scholarships. To get past the fallout from his decision to post such a threatening image when the entire nation’s nerves were frayed by the school violence in Florida. To keep working on what his attorney said was his 3.8 grade-point average.

His mother sued the district. Who can blame her? Moms ought to fight for what they believe to be the best outcome for their children. But, at least in terms of a requested preliminary injunction to prevent the school district from enforcing its expulsion, the judge wasn’t ready to ignore the problems the boy’s posting created.

The Huntsville student handbook states that students can’t use coercion, threat, intimidation or fear, among other things, to “intentionally” disrupt any school mission, process or function. It also says disciplinary action may be imposed “for off-campus conduct occurring at any time that would have a detrimental impact on school discipline, the educational environment or the welfare of the students and/or staff.”

The lawsuit asserts the policies are unconstitutionally vague and overly broad. But what are Huntsville administrators supposed to do? Just brush it of as boys being boys?

Context matters in life. How is a school district supposed to react to a photo like that in the wake of a school shooting? Wait for it to happen at Huntsville High? Should they wait for some injured kid to show up on the evening news saying “Yeah, the shooter posted a photo of himself with a gun and trench coat last year but the school district didn’t do anything about it?”

Only the kid knows what was in his mind when he posted the image. But school officials can hardly take their responsibility to protect all students seriously if they just ignore concerns. Surely the parents of other students don’t want administrators to take chances.

What a powerful lesson for young people (and their elders) about the power of social media and how, once a meme or photo or comment is launched into the vast space of the internet, it’s impossible to maintain control of how people react to it.

___

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Aug. 14, 2018.

“There’s nothing in the law that says the parties must bend to the reddest or bluest of constituents or lobbyists or financiers. Things were a lot smoother in the days when political parties were coalitions and members of each could talk to each other without fear of scandal.”

- This space, last week

And just like that, another example of the political parties bending to the reddest or bluest of special interests. This time, the phenomenon made the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

The story isn’t surprising these days, but it might have been just six or seven years ago: Almost all of the people running for the U.S. House of Representatives as Democrats this year are pro-gun control. Including some of the same politicians who used to be against more regulations on guns just a few years back.

The national Democrats think they have a shot at 63 “flips” this year—making a Republican House district a Democratic one. Thus winning back control of the whole chamber. Of those 63 would-be pols, 62 support expanded background checks for gun purchases, and they’d better if they know what their party wants. (The lone Democrat among the 63 not running on gun control is from a West Virginia district that Donald Trump won by 50 percentage points two years ago.)

This isn’t an editorial about the good, bad and ugly of gun laws. Surely our readers know where we stand by now. And why not have background checks for gun show sales? That editorial has appeared here, too.

But there used to be a time when the political parties had room for competing views on these matters. Now, not so much.

Who can remember - who can forget? - the time back in 2004 when John Kerry, running for president, marched into an Ohio shop and announced, in his best staged rural accent: “Can I get me a hunting license here?” Or a particular Clinton named Hillary telling her duck hunting stories at a Wisconsin campaign stop back in 2008?

Imagine. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton as moderates.

Once upon a time, Democratic congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio was A-rated as far as the NRA was concerned. His last grade was a D. He told the Journal, because of the latest mass shootings, if you’re “not doing anything, you hold that position to your own peril, political peril.”

To heck with political peril. What about the real kind? We wonder how many of these Democrats would agree that the nation’s schools need more armed police on campus. And why a sign saying No Guns Allowed at a movie theater might be ringing the bell for the crazies out there.

But now we’re talking guns again. Better we should bemoan that the two parties are hardly able to talk to each other at all.

Even with all its evident faults, we think the two-party system is too easily despised and its value much under-appreciated. It certainly beats one of those coalition governments that keep unraveling every time a cabinet member gets his feelings hurt. A two-party system is the key to American democracy. It makes each of the Big Two clearly accountable. Throw in a third major party (see Perot, R.) and accountability - for good or bad policies - on a national level becomes confusing.

But it seems the Democrats are taking the kind of stand on guns that Republicans take on … guns. Only a mirror image. Try to see in your mind’s eye a Republican trying to win a primary by bucking his party. These days, it’s the party’s way or the highway.

Liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats are as rare as Homers and Miltons. Which is why Americans continue to see this chasm widen.


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