Writer’s Block: Convention reaffirms importance of the free press

Staff Writer
Since 2013, I have primarily covered the Anoka-Hennepin and Spring Lake Park school districts as well as the city of Spring Lake Park for ABC Newspapers.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s 150th convention.

Olivia Alveshere
Olivia Alveshere

The conference, held in Bloomington over two days each January, always reinvigorates me and reassures me that I have chosen the right profession.

This year, a session on social media explored new ways to reach audiences in real time in addition to weekly in newsprint.

Within our company, reporters are one-man bands who head out on assignment and are expected to write their own stories, snap their own photos, shoot their own videos and update social media sites simultaneously.

It isn’t easy, but each medium carries its own message and connects with readers in different ways, so I see the value.

One of the popular sessions at the convention each year is attorney Mark Anfinson’s legal update.

A major talking point this year was a case about a data request for Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office emails.

Tony Webster submitted a request to see all emails that turned up following a search of 20 keywords he identified.

Afinson said the Sheriff’s Office insisted that with 209 million emails in its accounts and 6 million more coming in every month, the data request would keep servers running constantly for longer than 15 months, so the search was “unreasonable and too burdensome with which to comply.”

An administrative law judge disagreed and ordered the Sheriff’s Office to find a way to make its emails readily accessible to the public. The Sheriff’s Office has appealed the decision.

The room agreed that there is no easy answer here. The Data Practices Act is so important, but on the flip side, we all want our government to accomplish things, and if data requests take 24 hours a day to fulfill, that won’t happen.

Questions were asked in multiple sessions about President Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks about the press and whether journalists should be shaking in their boots.

“Don’t take Trump literally,” Afinson said. “Take Trump seriously.”

It’s hard to take “alternative facts” seriously.

Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway made headlines when she first used the phrase on “Meet the Press” Jan. 22. After host Chuck Todd asked her why the White House press secretary was uttering falsehoods about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration, Conway said, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving, Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

Todd fired back: “Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”

I agree with him.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics calls ethical journalism “accurate and fair.”

Accuracy is easy to understand: Report the truth. Verify everything. Be certain. Never assume.

Fairness took me longer to grasp. For a long time, I thought “fair” meant “equal.” While I always speak with someone on both sides of any given issue, I don’t always give both arguments equal play – that leads to false balance when facts are clear.

I understand why Trump would be loathe to trust many members of the press corps after an election season marred by so many missteps by both candidates and the press.

But as was pointed out at the MNA convention by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, one cannot assume that the media is painting with a single brush.

Are all lawyers greedy? Are all contractors unreliable? Do all dentists cause pain? No, no, no.

As the leader of our country, Trump needs to rise above this pettiness and stop assuming that all reporters are “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”

Such generalizations are dangerous, and Trump has been making more and more of them in the weeks since inauguration with his words and actions.

Attempting to silence voices will only make them stronger. Eliminating diversity will not “make America great again.”

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