Fact or Opinion? Newspapers Should Not Enable the Spread of False Information

Article excerpt

I was privy to a lively e-mail discussion that started when an NCEW member posed this question:

"Our paper has a policy of printing all letters unless they're libelous. But I do challenge letter writers who are stating things that are obviously wrong, if only to save them from being savaged by other letter writers. Usually these writers are relieved when they realize they may have narrowly averted public embarrassment. They amend the letter and it runs, still containing an opinion but minus the glaring error. Then what do we do with these 'birther' letters?"

"Birthers" are the folks who claim President Obama isn't a natural-born citizen and, therefore, is ineligible to be president. Certified copies of his Hawaiian birth certificate, statements by Hawaiian officials who have seen the original document, and birth announcements from Hawaiian newspapers at the time have not settled the question in their mind.

The ensuing discussion revealed two schools of thought about how opinion pages operate.

One says: Letters to the editor are a place where people should be able to freely exchange all ideas and opinions and let the readers decide for themselves who is right.

The other says opinions should be based in fact and to knowingly allow misinformation to appear in print, even in letters to the editor, does a disservice to all readers.

Those of us who fall into the latter camp--and I am among them--have spent far too much time lately fact-checking letters. And not just the ones from birthers.

The same day, I received a letter claiming that first lady Michelle Obama had more staff members than any other first lady. …