While the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered our world, it hasn’t adjusted how we at the Star-Tribune view our role in keeping people informed.
Before the virus, I viewed journalism as a critical component of a healthy democratic society. If people are to play a role in their government, they need good information. They need to know what their leaders are saying, but also what people are saying about their leaders. Without both sets of information, a citizen would have a difficult time engaging in the political process, whether by expressing an educated opinion, voting, holding a protest or writing a letter to a politician.
This global crisis — certainly the biggest news event of my career — has only intensified my conviction that journalism is part of what is required for a healthy democracy, even if sometimes the stories make you angry or stressed or just plain sad. The world around us seems to change daily, if not hourly, and people need to understand what’s happening in order to make decisions that affect themselves, their families and their livelihoods.
I’m telling you this following a week that saw our Gov. Mark Gordon question how we covered the discussion over shelter-in-place orders. As you likely know, Wyoming is one of a relatively small number of states that hasn’t required its citizens to stay home to limit the virus’ spread. Gordon has ordered a series of closures and asked residents to stay home, but has stopped short of a full-on shelter-in-place requirement. He’s made the case that other states’ orders are full of exceptions and are therefore not substantively different from the closures he’s put into effect. He’s also argued that Wyomingites don’t need the government to tell them to do the right thing. If you ask, he contends, they’ll make smart choices.
At the same time, some of our top medical experts have argued — forcefully — that a shelter-in-place order is necessary if Wyoming’s health care system is to avoid being overwhelmed. They’ve said it should have already been put into effect, but that acting now will spare us a more difficult outcome down the line. The Wyoming Medical Society has urged the governor to act. So have some local health officials.
I don’t relish the tough decisions facing the governor. And I’m not going to use this space to argue whether he is right or wrong with respect to shelter-in-place orders. I will argue that his comments in a news conference last week criticizing the Star-Tribune for noting the disagreement between him and key medical figures showed a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of journalism.
Here’s the issue at its core: It’s important for journalists to tell readers that Gordon has taken a series of steps to limit the spread of COVID-19. It’s also important for journalists to tell readers that some of the state’s most prominent doctors are advocating for him to take more aggressive actions. Only when armed with both perspectives can citizens make informed decisions. Sharing differing views isn’t about headlines. It’s not about selling newspapers or being divisive or fake news or any of the other accusations media critics toss about. It’s an essential part of presenting the whole story. Asking questions is not just a right in our democracy, it’s a responsibility, and one that we take seriously.
So what does this mean going forward? The Star-Tribune will continue to report on the directions and recommendations offered by Gordon and other state leaders. And we’ll continue to share the views of other groups — the medical community, the business sector and average citizens. This is the only way to give readers the knowledge they need at a time when good information has never been more important.
Thanks for reading.
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