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  • Last modified 1 days ago (Dec. 5, 2019)

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To report, or not to report, that is the question

Don’t kill the messenger is one of those bits of advice that people dispensing information have been delivering up since the days of Sophocles. Shakespeare reinforced the message in two of his plays, and countless editorials have mentioned it since newspapering began.

What’s troubling today is that, instead of simply discounting information they don’t want to hear, people actively encourage journalists not to report it in the first place. We must confess to a bit of bewilderment over that attitude. Typically, it’s people who think we reside somewhat beneath pond scum that expect us to decide for them what it is they want or need to know.

There was a bit of a dust-up on social media last week about a very tiny news story we published about personal finance problems of a prominent government official. We won’t repeat the details here and give even more prominence to them. But we will say that we heard arguments on both sides. On the one hand, it was the official’s personal business. On the other, the official has responsibility for similar financial dealings involving taxpayer money, and taxpayers had a right to know.

Honestly, we don’t know whether the personal matter might have any implication on official duties. We left that up to readers to determine. That’s why we wrote the story but gave it very little prominence — basically, the prominence we reserve for what we call filler shorts, tiny inconsequential items that even out the bottom of a page.

The problem is that Facebook picked it up and blasted it all over everywhere. Facebook operates a lot differently than most people think. We, for example, have 1,910 followers on Facebook. You might think that all of them will get whatever items we post. They don’t, just like most of the people you think you may be reached by an ad placed on Facebook don’t actually see it.

We electronically submitted 64 news items to Facebook last week. Facebook’s computers chose to relay only six of them. The one it relayed most — to 68% of our followers — was the tiny filler short. None of the other five was among the 10 most-read stories on our website, which reached 17,608 readers in the same time period that Facebook was reaching 68% of our 1,910 social media followers.

The other five items Facebook chose ranked 13th, 20th, 29th, 38th, and 39th in popularity on our website. Why Facebook’s secret algorithm picked them, you’ll have to ask Facebook. (Good luck.) The key thing to recognize is that if you’re depending on Facebook to make sure you know what others in the community know, you’re getting a very slanted view of things.

We took our share of abuse for publishing the less than 100 words in the short, and we were a bit concerned about that until we checked out who was saying what.

“Honestly do not understand how they stay afloat with all the trash they print,” was the comment from someone who for two years running was included on the delinquent tax list the county publishes in our papers and who four times in recent months was sued by debt collectors, as listed in the Civil Division column of our Docket page each time.

“Horrible people at the paper. Trash like this is the reason I will NEVER spend my money on your paper,” came from someone twice sued by debt collectors.

“You guys are absolutely disgusting and should be shut down,” came from someone who made our Docket page several times after being arrested on burglary, trespass and drug charges.

We might have been willing to eat crow about the short had these readers not already been dining on sour grapes. What’s even more interesting is that, much as they apparently hate us, they still were keeping up with the news we cover by using Facebook to avoid paying to support the full range of news we publish.

For the record, our papers contained lots of very positive news last week: a veteran getting a free home (5th place), a Christmas home tour (10th), a new heated fishing dock (14th), an editorial urging support for small businesses (15th), a second preview of Marion’s Christmas celebration (16th), a story about Giving Tuesday (24th), and a complete listing of county elementary students’ messages of thanksgiving (26th, 29th, 30th, 38th, 39th, and 48th place), which we had to abridge slightly in print to fit within 2½ pages — a feature that made us wonder, by the way, why Centre kids seem to be so thankful for Dr Pepper.

You didn’t see a lot of Top 5 finishes on that list. Alas, bad news tends to be read more often than good news, as any watcher of “if it bleeds it leads” local TV news is aware. Facebook sure doesn’t help in that regard. But we still make every attempt to give you all the news, not just a tiny fraction of it the way some other papers and social media do, because we respect your ability to decide for yourself what’s important and what isn’t.

Societies that depend on “goodspeak” and allow anyone — even journalists — to censor what everyone has an opportunity to learn are the stuff of George Orwell’s “1984,” Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

We routinely self-censor in only one area. Unlike our competitors, we never seek advertisements from out-of-town competitors to local businesses. We probably would make more money if we did, but that’s not who we are and not why we exist.

We may get grief at times for erring on the side of giving you too much information (except about out-of-town businesses), but we never want to give you too little. We respect freedom, democracy, our community, and you far too much to do otherwise.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Dec. 5, 2019

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