As the Viewpoints editor here at Wednesday Journal, I’m skeptical when anyone insists something is a “fact.” I’m skeptical of the sources, and skeptical of a possible hidden agenda in pushing “facts,” especially on controversial topics.

A “fact” (the word, in my opinion, should always have quote marks around it) is at best a virtual truth about which there is general consensus. There is nearly universal consensus that the sun rises every morning and sets every night. What could be more obvious?

But it’s not the sun that changes position. It’s the turning Earth. The rising and setting, it turns out, are illusions.

“Facts” have always been slippery and elusive, more so now in the Age of Social Media, and more so still in the Age of Misinformation, the Big Lie, QAnon, and the global pandemic, where “facts” that aren’t true can have deadly, widespread consequences.

Most people are trustworthy, but there are plenty of people with agendas who weaponize “facts” in order to mislead and manipulate and mobilize the easily misguided. Many others resort to misinformation in the heat of discussions on controversial issues.

How does all this play out in the Viewpoints pages? In our News section, the objective is more important than the subjective. In Viewpoints, the subjective takes precedence. In Viewpoints, calling something a “fact” is actually a statement of opinion until proven otherwise.

Calling it a “fact” does not make it so. Your source may be suspect. Or the “fact” may be unreliably reported, i.e. not an accurate representation of what was contained in your original source. Or it might be accurate but interpreted in a way that misrepresents the intent of the source or is used (and sometimes twisted) to draw highly questionable inferences and conclusions.

The old City News Bureau used to tell its reporters, “If your grandmother says she loves you, check it out.” That’s what I heard anyway. I would have to check it out to know if even the story is true.

“Facts” need to be checked. No easy task and very time-consuming. Our bare-bones staff is always trying to do more than we have time for, especially during deadline, which is when we put the Viewpoints section together.

To check “facts,” we need to hold a submission for at least a week, maybe longer, while someone else, who is even busier than I, can check it out (being semi-retired, I only work two days a week). Those are the limitations we live with.

Our top priority has always been to get as many submissions in print in the timeliest manner possible. That was back before social media, Trump, the pandemic, and the national reckoning on race. We now have another top priority: not letting these pages be used as a platform for misinformation, intentional or unintentional. First do no harm, as Hippocrates (reportedly) said so long ago.

So we’ve had to adjust and evolve. We can’t prohibit “facts,” or “data,” but we can discourage submissions that are overly reliant on numbers, statistics, charts, etc., which may or may not be true, especially on highly controversial issues. We sometimes have to remind our letter writers that their submissions are expressions of opinion, first and foremost, not a final argument in a court of law.

If evidence is included, therefore, the source needs to be cited, preferably within the same sentence so readers can decide for themselves if it seems reliable. Links can also be provided.

Ultimately, “facts” are intended to support the argument you’re making, not the other way around. Data is not as persuasive as reason. And overreliance on numbers and statistics, quoting experts who may or may not be trustworthy, combined with loose interpretation, can be a harmful combination. We’re not looking for just any opinion. We want opinions worth reading.

Reason is more persuasive than emotion. There’s a place for both, but they need to be in the proper proportion: A lot more reason, a minimum of “facts” if necessary, and just enough emotion when it’s warranted. That’s the formula.

We’ve been talking for some time around here about creating a Viewpoints “policy” for this new era, but a hard-and-fast policy just isn’t realistic.

Instead, we’ll have to settle for the following flexible guidelines that will continue to evolve over time:

Flexible guidelines for submitting to Viewpoints

  • The Viewpoints section is not a court of law. It is the court of public opinion. Opinion is inherently subjective and imperfect — and frequently faulty. A little humility is in order. “Factual evidence” may make your opinion more convincing (or simply “sound” more convincing), but your job is not to “prosecute” those with whom you disagree. Honest but civil expression of opinion is more important than persuasion.
  • If you include numbers, statistics, etc., in an opinion piece, your sources (writers and publications, or quotes from “experts” and the organizations they represent) should be cited, preferably in the same sentence (According to …). Links to your sources can also be included at the end of your submission. We don’t have enough space to run charts.
  • We also don’t have sufficient staff or time to do a lot of fact-checking. The more data that needs checking, the more likely your submission will be held for a week or more — or not run altogether.
  • We value diversity of opinions, but expressions of that opinion need to be “responsible.” We will do whatever we can to avoid being used as a platform for misinformation. We will not print conspiracy theories or expressions of support, direct or indirect, for lies propagated by those who have demonstrated their contempt for democracy, or that could lead to the loss of lives during a pandemic.
  • We reserve the right to edit pieces or not run them altogether. This is obviously a subjective call on our part, but there’s no way around that. We ask you to trust that we are not interested in practicing censorship.
  • We cannot act as “referees” in long-running disputes between residents and local institutions. If you get personal, petty, indicting, and/or insulting, your submission probably won’t run.
  • We are not opposed to criticism — of us, others or local institutions — but we do not look kindly on submissions that are insensitive or harmful to entire groups of people. Our contribution to the national “reckoning on race” is to require our writers to show a level of respect, sensitivity, and equity. We are not interested in opinions, for instance, from writers who regard people of color as inadequate or inferior and who feel a strong need to lecture them about perceived inadequacies.
  • At the same time, we encourage an honest, vulnerable, humble, courageous, and sincere discussion of the difficult racial issues we face — as individuals, as a community, and as a nation. Is this a tall order? Yes. Is it impossible? No (in our opinion).
  • We expect, in other words, letters and essays written from the better angels of your nature.

Feel free to express your opinion about these guidelines.

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