OPINION COLUMNS

Choosing to engage: Reporter will respond to Facebook falsehoods from now on

By David Talley | Published Wednesday, June 21, 2017
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Last week, I wrote an article about an Aurora city council meeting that included the request for a special-use permit from a corporation that plans to open a drug treatment facility at MD Resort.

We used the article for our Face-2-Facebook online engagement initiative, meaning we posted a link to the article and requested feedback – in this case, whether or not people would welcome a facility like that in their community.

David Talley

David Talley

While responses varied, I noticed an overarching theme in many of the replies, alleging that I had, either deliberately or carelessly, reported falsehoods about the proposed facility and what was said at the meeting.

One commenter went so far as to suggest that their comment “set the record straight,” before offering a numbered list of things that they said were incorrect in the article. The comment and others like it were the center of a newsroom discussion Monday morning.

So let’s set the record straight – I stand by my reporting. I recorded the entire meeting on my phone, as I generally do when public meetings center around high-profile issues.

I made a call and did a little research to shore up my knowledge on the subject before writing out several possible replies to the comment and discussing them with my coworkers.

Comments alleging that the facility isn’t licensed frame the issue incorrectly. The facility can’t be licensed because it doesn’t exist yet. The proposal is for a facility that will apply for a license. I confirmed that with the city of Aurora Monday. Another comment alleged that I reported that the incoming facility was endorsed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. That’s not in the article. Ultimately, I didn’t send any of the replies.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve had these talks in the newsroom. From basic stories about other public meetings to breaking news on wrecks and house fires, we’re sometimes confronted with online comments that either incorrectly frame the issue being reported or allege factual inaccuracies. What’s the duty of the newspaper in this situation? Does our commitment to being right extend to the comment section? What about when we specifically ask for the comments? Or when our own reporting is assailed?

Our Facebook policy states that “the nature of online commentary is that it is a free and open forum. Anyone can offer an opinion or observation, and the Messenger is not responsible for the accuracy or civility of what readers post online. Our responsibility to our readers, friends and followers is to uphold the highest standards of accuracy and professionalism in what we post online, just as we do in our print editions. How readers respond to that is their responsibility.”

But sometimes readers don’t read. In the same comment section, a reader asked, “Where are they wanting to put this facility?” It’s at MD Resort in Aurora. That’s in the second sentence of last Wednesday’s article, which was provided in a link: “Aurora City Council members Monday emphatically rejected a specific use permit that would clear the way for a state licensed medical treatment facility to open, despite recommendations by the city attorney and planning and zoning chairperson to accept the permit request. Milrose Capital submitted the permit seeking to open a drug rehabilitation facility at the current site of MD Resort on Old Base Road.” The answer to the question was just a click away. That happens quite a bit. If a reader gets the whole story from the comment section, are we really doing our job?

What I take the above Facebook policy to mean is that we’ll do our best not to censor someone’s opinion, unless it’s profane or constitutes a personal attack. As someone committed to the spread of free, factual information, I feel compelled to provide context and information about issues that affect Wise County residents. If that means replying to a reader’s comment on Facebook to correct a falsehood or back up my own reporting, from now on, I’m going to do it.

This isn’t to say we don’t mess up. I’ve got a running mental list of the things I’ve gotten wrong. From street names to peoples’ names to bond package details, I’ve missed my mark more than once. But we issue corrections for the things we do wrong. If that’s called out in a public, online space, I’ll do my best to engage with the reader, explain what I understood the issue to be and work toward getting the corrected information out. That’s a transparent policy I think everyone can support.

David Talley is a Messenger reporter.

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