Oct. 3-10 is National Newspaper Week. The theme for this 81st annual observance is “community forum.” We can only imagine why this theme was chosen. Maybe it had something to do with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on so many gatherings, local meetings and public hearings. Maybe the violent insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 on our U.S. Capitol was in the back of somebody’s mind. Or, maybe the event committee wanted to offer all of us editorial writers another chance to remind our readers why social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter really aren’t very good examples of a trustworthy community forum. The answer is probably all of the above.
Newspapers have served as community forums since the founding of this nation and even before that time. If a local newspaper is no longer printed on paper but becomes a digital online version can it still serve as a community forum? What are the criteria of a community forum? Communities have more than one forum, don’t they? How is the community forum provided by a newspaper different from other local forums? These are all good questions. We should host a community forum and search for the best answers.
Meanwhile, we’ll offer a few observations to get us started. It’s easier to hold a community forum in smaller communities like where we live instead of larger cities. Here, we all can find our way to city hall or a school board meeting and the meeting schedule is not too hard to find, either. Some of us belong to a neighborhood or homeowners’ association. Our churches, synagogues and mosques are excellent community forums, but are limited in scope by differing religious beliefs.
The very best community forum is open to everyone and is free of charge. All voices and input should be given equal weight. A community forum is a safe place and adheres to civil rules of behavior. If someone is in charge, that moderator, leader or facilitator must be fair to all and not play favorites. The chief role of the moderator must be to keep facts separated from opinion. He or she has the task of leading a rigorous fact-checking regimen and must serve as an umpire, calling balls and strikes and fair and foul plays.
All participants in a community forum should admit their biases, listen carefully, stick to the subject at hand, observe time limits and other boundaries, cite references, avoid repetitiveness, try a little humor now and then and never try to get away with lying.
Why do journalists make good community forum leaders? Journalists are trained in the practice seeking facts and reporting them without regard to where they might lead or the truths they might tell. But some journalists are too skeptical or distrusting to be good forum facilitators.
Elected officials — even the most honest ones — are limited in what types of community forums they should lead. These officials could lead a great forum about wildfire safety or pandemic public health precautions. But anyone that depends on winning votes to keep their jobs shouldn’t lead a community forum with controversial or partisan topics.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that the majority of respondents cited newspapers as the most relied-upon source for crime, taxes, local government activities, schools, local politics, local jobs, community/neighborhood events, arts events, zoning information, local social services and real estate/housing.
But there have been other recent polls where the public’s trust in journalists and newspapers is low and declining. We think this is because too many people confuse real journalists with TV pundits, talk radio hosts and social media bloggers.
At our future community forum about what makes for a good community forum, let’s start with the premise that the best community forum is the one with the most people’s trust and the one most dedicated to truth and transparency. Too idealistic?