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posted: 7/25/2013 5:00 AM

Facts, interpretations and matters of entitlement

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A common expression asserts that we are all entitled to our own opinions but we are not entitled to our own facts. How about our interpretations regarding a fact? Or our interpretations of someone else's stated opinion?

It can get confusing, and, as our editorial Sunday reflected regarding the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman controversy, it too often becomes enmeshed with one's individual passions and principles. Two cases in point from this week:

The first involves a letter to the editor offering that I rejected this week. We give writers broad leeway on both their presentation of "facts" and their interpretations of them, but we do turn away letters with blatantly incorrect statements. This letter, as it happened, included a clearly incorrect interpretation of our Sunday editorial.

It began by asserting that our editorial showed that we were following the "typical" media path of portraying the Martin slaying as a racial incident; then, it went on to explain why the writer thinks race was not a factor in Martin's killing. Actually, our editorial had almost nothing to do with race, raising the subject only as it contributed to our larger theme that rather than evaluate the Martin/Zimmerman case on the basis of facts, people on both sides of the verdict seem too ready to leap into emotional condemnations and rationalizations based on their own personal passions.

Earlier, over the weekend, another reader became outraged by an editorial cartoon that appeared Saturday. It is not unusual for editorial cartoons to generate outrage. Inasmuch as the very format is designed to appeal to emotions first, editorial cartoons have a low threshold for offending people who don't agree with them. But this cartoon, again involving Martin/Zimmerman, sparked a curious response from the reader.

The cartoon showed in one panel the parental warnings a young black male must observe today -- all related to benign details of the Martin case, the Skittles, ice tea, hoodie and nice neighborhood -- and in another the parental warning required for a young white male -- simply not forgetting to floss. It seemed to us that the clear point, whether one agrees with it or not, was that the Martin case shows black males still must worry about a lot of things whites take for granted. But this reader interpreted the cartoon to be saying that black parents care more about their kids than white parents because they warn against so many other things.

I spoke with him this week, and he refused to back away from his interpretation, insisting that since the cartoon didn't mention Martin/Zimmerman specifically, his reading of the message was perfectly valid, so the cartoon was an offensively racist suggestion that blacks are better parents than whites.

For the record, we don't think that. And if we thought an editorial cartoon was making such a sweeping generalization, we wouldn't publish it. Interestingly, though, I offered the reader the opportunity, which he declined, to complain about the cartoon in a letter to the editor, the very forum from which I'd foreclosed a reader who misinterpreted our editorial. The distinction? Our editorial states its points clearly and directly and nowhere lies open to the description the first writer assumed; the cartoon is what it is and as such is open to readings even beyond what the artist may have intended.

That may confuse slightly the question of whether one is entitled to his interpretation of the facts, but I will say remains true to our policy of erring on the side of entitlement.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor of the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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