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OUR TURN: Trust, facts and bathroom doors

By Lowell Anderson, Staff Reporter

It's been said that how long a minute lasts depends on which side of the bathroom door you are on.

Perception of reality and facts are funny that way; they depend a lot on your viewpoint and other circumstances. So, when is a fact really a fact?

There's been a lot of talk lately about "alternative facts" and "fake news." At the recent Minnesota Newspaper Association convention, nearly every speaker made a sarcastic or negative reference to these terms. Obviously, many news people are concerned about what they see as an assault on truthful reporting.

At the same time, public trust in the media seems to be at an all-time low. In fact, one poll from 2016 showed that only 6 percent of people have a high trust in the mainstream media.

That's something that should get the attention of every journalist and media outlet. However, before we start pointing fingers at Trump, special interests or social media, It might be a good idea for journalists to look inside ourselves.

First off, it's important for people to know that as journalists, we do what we do because we believe it is important and indispensable. We believe that providing news really makes a difference and makes the world a better place. We also take great pride in truthful, accurate, unbiased reporting.

So why do so many people see the media as inaccurate and biased?

Quite simply, because we are. We try not to be, but we still are. Our biggest problem is that we won't admit it.

We all have biases. No one is completely objective, reporters included. Sometimes the bias shows in the questions we ask or don't ask, or in who we choose to interview, or in who we believe when we ask for the facts. All journalists have some sort of political leaning that affects how they see the world and report on a topic. Even if we attempt to minimize it, it's always there.

And sometimes the bias comes not from how things are reported, but from what we chose to report on. It's no secret that the media have their own special causes that they like to fight for — things that they feel are wrong in the world and need to be changed. At the same time, some issues that should get covered get completely ignored.

Being an unbiased reporter is not simply a matter of only reporting the facts. Facts can be tricky. They depend a lot on which side of the bathroom door you're on. It's easy to jump on the bandwagon and say something is a fact just because everyone else says it is. Everyone we talk to — including all the experts — may agree, but we can't be too quick to accept it. Data can be and often is manipulated and skewed for various reasons. More often than not, it is the "experts" who are responsible for that manipulation.

Calling something a fact can also be problematic because what we call facts are often only something that is probably or most likely true. And there are always more facts out there waiting to be discovered. We may not have time to find them all, but we can at least avoid the inaccuracy of implying that we have all the facts.

Although technically a fact is a fact, in reality there really are alternative facts. They are merely facts that haven't been discovered yet, facts that we haven't considered, or facts that we refuse to consider.

Of course as reporters, we really don't deal in facts anyway so much as in someone's interpretation of facts. That makes them slippery and hard to pin down. When someone in authority tells you something, that doesn't make it a fact — the only fact is that they told you it was a fact. And sometimes a fact may be technically true, but is totally out of context.

However, just because our reporting is biased and inaccurate does not make it irrelevant, only flawed and human. We need good journalists even though they are not perfect.

Reporters certainly need to strive to be as objective as possible and find all the relevant facts, but the biggest thing we could do to win back the public's trust would be to stop pretending to be perfect. When we insist on trying to convince people that we are when they clearly see we are not, we only make them distrust us more.