There may not be a more tired saying in American politics than some variation of “you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.”
That line, frequently attributed to the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, recognizes that there are unquestionable, established facts that should guide public debate regardless of our differing perspectives on what to do about those facts. And while the saying itself is often overused by politicians debating other politicians, the underlying message holds true.
Here in the opinion pages of the Bangor Daily News, we have an opportunity to share the opinions of Maine people from wide-ranging experiences and perspectives. The reader-contributed voices amplified through OpEds (opinion columns) and letters to the editor provide important insight into life here in Maine, across the country and around the world.
The whole point is for people to be able to present their opinions — not ours, not that of other readers or organizations — and to add depth to the conversation in the process. But just because we’re working with opinions doesn’t mean facts go out the window. That applies both to contributed pieces or editorials written by our editorial board. In all cases, we have a responsibility to endeavor to ensure that what is printed in these pages is factually accurate, and based in provable events and actions.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion when submitting a piece to us, but on these pages, those opinions must be based on underlying facts and actual events that can be reviewed, by us and our readers, for accuracy. So, when you submit a letter or an OpEd, please cite your sources, include links to your information, and avoid speculation and potentially libelous assertions.
The truth, of course, is a moving target. We don’t pretend to be the ultimate arbiters of fact as we edit contributed content. There are sure to be differing interpretations, and we err on the side of free speech and expression. Despite our best efforts, we may not always get everything right. The opinion section, however, does not give people carte blanche to make unsubstantiated or incorrect claims. For instance, we don’t allow people to equate accusations of a crime with guilt, or speculate wildly without evidence or potential explanation as to why someone has made a certain decision.
Two people may look at the same statistics and have different takeaways. They may look at the same actions of a public official or governing body and have very different reactions. We’d like to hear both of those perspectives, but hope that letter and OpEd writers will base their commentary on what is provable.
First-person, contentious situations where you’re alleging bad behavior from someone else — perhaps a dispute with a neighbor, an unsatisfactory interaction with an elected official or an unpleasant experience at a local businesses — are particularly problematic for us to print when there is no readily available evidence or documentation. Often times, the opinion pages are not the place for these type of debates, which occasionally launch into unverifiable personal disputes better suited for the news section, complaint department at another institution, or even a court — where all sides involved have an opportunity to be heard.
When we deny or edit a piece like this, it’s a matter of recognizing that our role isn’t just to give voice to different opinions, but to do so in a responsible, verifiable way.
Part of our responsibility here is to foster dialogue about issues without having things devolve into personal attacks. So when replying to someone else’s OpEd or letter, commend or critique ideas, not people. And please never hesitate to criticize the opinions of this editorial board, but please explain why you disagree, and back it up with evidence that all can see.
Hopefully, none of this is particularly surprising. We already have a disclaimer in print and online that lets people know their submissions may be “edited or rejected for clarity, taste, libel and space.” People are almost always understanding when we have edits or concerns about a contributed piece, but we thought some extra clarity on this process might be helpful. We are, after all, in the transparency business.
So please keep writing us, keep sharing your opinions, and please keep in mind that a free press should not mean freedom from the facts, even when it comes to opinion writing. That applies to everyone, including us.