Protecting A Community’s Health

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher
Swift County Monitor-News

Last flu season in America was particularly deadly. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 61,000 people died from flu related symptoms with 810,000 hospitalized.

As we enter the heart of this flu season, the Minnesota Department of Health, Horizon Public Health, our local medical staffs, and our pharmacies will be reminding us to get vaccinated – and you should follow their advice. Doing so not only protects you but safeguards the lives of infants whose immune systems aren’t fully developed and are too young for vaccines, those who have comprised immune systems due to cancer treatments, and those who are allergic to vaccines.

From time to time, we become involved in conversations with fellow members of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE.) These editor and publishers come from all over America and the world representing the full spectrum of political, religious and social beliefs. Our conversations are robust yet respectful - an unusual quality in these days of social media and an insight into the underlying character of those who work at small town newspapers.

These conversations may give you some insight into how newspaper publishers and editors develop policies that guide their decisions when it comes to printing letters to the editors. Community newspapers are the most trusted source of local news for their readers.

Living up to that trust requires vigilance on behalf of the truth, fairness in our news pages, and a willingness to print letters to the editor from those whose thoughts are at the fringes of credibility and offensive to the majority.

A fellow publisher in Canada recently received a letter to the editor from an anti-vaxxer – a person who spreads misleading and false information about the safety of vaccines. It cites “all kinds of risks, attributed to ‘Dr.’ David Brownstein. The writer doesn’t disclose the good doctor is a homeopath and is happy to sell you salts and iodines on his ‘medical’ website.”

“We generally let writers write what they want, and give them lots of latitude, but I don’t like them spreading disinformation,” the editor writes on his ISWNE post.

 “I would treat it the same as letters that deny human-caused climate change, that deny the science of evolution, or that deny the moon landing,” one of ISWNE’s members replied. “It’s a crackpot letter, and most readers will understand it to be such. Ideally, it will get many more local letters in defense of reality.”

It is a good point, but too often there won’t be a reply, leaving the false information to establish itself as fact.

 “I agree with not censoring dissenting opinion. But do you let someone cite ‘doctors’ and statistics in their letters?” the Canadian editor responded. “I’m sure these statistics exist, but their source and foundation are the phony part, and won’t stand up to academic scrutiny. Where do you draw the line?

Editors can’t fact check every source that a letter writer submits, another editor said. “Print the letter as written,” he recommended, unless you plan on verifying every fact that comes with each letter.

 “It sticks in my craw to OK what I consider to be dangerous lies,” another editor writes. However, he sides with publishing the letters relying on the hope that not many will read them and his “long-standing editor’s inclination of ‘when in doubt, run it.’ But it’s not easy.”  Another editor disagrees with this policy.

“I was never a fan of the approach of knowing something is wrong, but printing it anyway, in hopes that someone else will write in later to debunk it,” an editor we tend to agree with writes. “Be a gatekeeper and leave it out. It doesn’t add to the conversation to share bad info. Don’t confuse that with ‘censoring,’ like a government does. The argument ‘but that’s what people in the community are thinking’ also doesn’t hold up well for me.

“If it’s important to share what uninformed ideas people are thinking, do it a news sense, with (very important) a chance to debunk and share the truth as you do,” he writes.

There are issues debated with the primary consequence of elevating the blood pressure of the members of one particular political or religious faction or another. There are letters that lead to an informed discussion on healthcare, taxes, education, immigration and many other issues where policy and action are legitimately questioned. Then there is information that is critical to the health and safety of the people in our communities where we have a responsibility to give our readers the truth.

Those who are not vaccinated against diseases pose a very real threat to the health and safety of the people who are their neighbors, friends, family, and all they come in contact within their daily routines.

Extensive medical studies have proven vaccines safe. There is no legitimacy to a debate between those who cite medical facts, and those who use fabricated, long debunked unscientific conjectures from charlatans. By letting the debate play out between letter writers, we give legitimacy to misleading ideas with potentially deadly consequences for individuals in our community.

Still, if we were to receive a letter from an anti-vaxxer simply stating that he or she didn’t believe in vaccinations, without citing false testimony, we would print it. It is stating a belief, often based in fear, without falsely misleading others.

In nearly all instances, we must ensure that our published letters to the editor provide the community awareness of the broad range of thought among its people, including those with which we vehemently disagree. The letters we print allow the community to look at itself and ask, “Is this a reflection of who we are?” Those who disagree with what they read have the right to try change that perception with their own letters.

In this age of rampant, widely disseminated disinformation, a trusted source of news is more critical at the local level than ever before.

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