Finding our way forward amid Nordic controversy

By Daniel Dunkle | Nov 15, 2018

Many of us have been at a public meeting, maybe a town meeting, when the conversation about a high-stakes issue got heated.

Before you know it, tempers have flared, people are shouting over one another, and no one can understand what anyone is saying even, with everyone using top volume.

It's usually at this point that the moderator starts banging the gavel for quiet. The moderator then demands quiet, civility, goes over the ground rules for the debate at hand.

The opinion page in a newspaper is a lot like that town meeting and the editor acts as the moderator. We are fortunate enough to live in a democracy, and our job as journalists is to champion free speech and robust debate. But even in writing and on a letters page, things can get out of hand.

That has been the case since Nordic Aquafarms proposed its project. It seems to have become a matter of life and death for some in this community. I'm not even sure the big box controversies of the past so divided the Belfast area.

Since May, we have published in this paper eight columns by Lawrence Reichard criticizing this project. Eight!

And he didn't pull any punches. Headlines included "Nordic's credibility chasm," and "The most toxic food in the world?"

We allowed these columns to run because our first instinct is to allow freedom of expression. We don't want to silence anyone. And we respected that Lawrence was working hard and doing a lot of research.

But we were developing a credibility concern of our own. How can we be sure when someone expresses passionate opposition to something that they can be fair and unbiased in analyzing the results of their research into that issue?

Lawrence had been brought on as a freelance columnist to write about politics in general, items of interest to the general public. However, he was conducting interviews and research, flying to Europe to look into this more deeply, and we ended up with an uncomfortable hybrid of investigative journalism and opinion column.

I began fielding complaints. Not threats of lawsuits, though I was becoming concerned about that. I sought wisdom from an editor of a daily newspaper and in talking had mentioned that I saw Lawrence as coming from the activist school of journalism. This other editor told me that there should be no such thing as an activist journalist. Journalists are supposed to leave their opinions out of it, research an issue with an open mind and report the important facts as clearly as possible.

Activism is noble, but it has a goal of pushing an agenda, often a good and worthy one, but an agenda just the same. The two roles are supposed to be separate.

We had reached a point where neither Lawrence nor I could compromise on our positions. Eight columns on one topic was not a matter of journalism; it was a campaign. It was time to make a change so we could both attend to our respective missions.

So how do we move forward? We want and welcome letters on both sides of this project. We do not believe those who are opposed to this project are merely a vocal minority to be dismissed. They have concerns that need to be addressed. We also believe those who support this project need an opportunity to state their views and answer these concerns and are entitled to fair treatment.

We were not the anti-aquafarm newspaper and we are not becoming the pro-aquafarm paper.

But we are going to edit letters and guest columns for libel, meaning that it is OK to say you don't like a project or its location, or that you have concerns about its environmental impact and size, but you cannot say the people involved are liars with criminal affiliations and toxic products who will devastate our environment.

Any statement of scientific "fact" must be backed up with evidence. We may have time to evaluate that evidence or not, given that there are only four journalists trying to run The Republican Journal right now and this is not the only topic up for their consideration.

People are used to saying whatever they want on social media, but we have always had standards for letters and columns in The Republican Journal, and those have always included that we will edit for libel.

Where to draw that exact line in an opinion piece, we are finding, is more challenging than it sounds, so we appreciate your patience with us and your feedback.

We are committed to treating this project as we would any other. We will cover the meetings on this project diligently and we will write what we see and provide information on the process. We will hold leaders in the city accountable. They need to be open and transparent, and they need to give all sides a chance to be heard and all information a chance to be thoroughly vetted.

Let us know how we are doing and feel free to contact me or Editor Stephanie Grinnell with concerns.

Daniel Dunkle is news director for Courier Publications.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Mary Bigelow | Nov 21, 2018 10:48

Glad to hear your thoughts  and policy development.  For months I have been  wondering how the local activist journalist secured so much print space......



Posted by: EDWIN (BUD) NESBIT | Nov 18, 2018 09:13

A fair and well thought out position.



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