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Minnich: Words lose value without context

Most of my adult life has been about putting words together in what we generally call “stories.” In a newsroom, a story is usually a diligent effort at reporting the news in a straightforward and truthful manner — who, what, when, where, why and how. It’s a craft, more than a talent.

The idea is to get the facts to the reader in a concise and easily understood manner and let the analysis up to the reader. It should contain enough detail to fully inform, but avoid judgment, analysis or opinion. The opinions are left to the second story staff; the writers of analysis, editorial page opinion pieces, columnists. Sometimes, the location and the timing of the stories in a newspaper or on television can blur the lines.

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Too much interpretation by the reporters or analysts and columnists can create more confusion than enlightenment, which is why we like to get comfortable with sources we can trust — or agree with what we think.

For too many consumers of news and information, that makes them vulnerable to predators who are willing to sacrifice truth in exchange for dominance in politics or commercial markets. This is especially true in an open society where personal opinion is valued more than personal responsibility. Or integrity.

Most reporters I’ve known put a high value on integrity. Some are vultures, some are bag-carriers for their favorite sources or causes, but most feel an obligation to put the information out there as if it were food for the hungry or shelter for the wandering pilgrim.

It is that sense of service to the community that is sometimes mistaken for leftist political views. Most of us are surprised when some critic finds us too liberal or too conservative. Those of us who have been at it a while have learned that we will be perceived as both at once, depending on the politics of one beholder or another.

The bottom line of using words to navigate the ideas of a free society is that it’s really all about the context. It works best when the words serve a cause, rather than when a cause manipulates the words. It’s about words serving something else, not words that are merely self-serving.

Context. It can be misinterpreted, but it must not be misrepresented. That’s why those who take on the responsibility of defining the work of democracy must be willing to stand for the highest ideals of our story.

A good reporter who covers a meeting in which different points of view are debated is successful if his story draws complaints from both sides for being biased. If one side loves the story and the other side hates it, the reporter should quit and go to work in public relations. It happens a lot, because the money is not in public distribution of facts, but in persuasion. More time and money are spent on marketing images than on balanced and unvarnished truth.

These thoughts come to me as I read the complaints of extremists on the Right — and to a lesser extent on the Left — that their stories are not being told accurately. Or enough.

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So what is truth, or justice, or government, and how are they all essential to each other?

Our culture needs a press that challenges the shortcomings of government, but we cannot have a government that undermines a free press. The press can get it wrong, but the government cannot lie to the people.

The agencies entrusted to ensure justice for all must never be allowed to persecute critics or protect those in power from accountability.

Government needs critical but balanced assessment to keep it honest, and a servant of the public, and not be allowed to grow its powers to abuse the few in the interests of the privileged and the corrupt.

Dean Minnich retired from full-time journalism and served two terms as a county commissioner. His column appears on Thursdays. His email address is dminnichwestm@gmail.com.

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