It’s always interesting which columns generate conversation, at least conversation that makes it back to my ears. The feedback from last week’s column on the responsibility of the press was surprising.

I put that together at the last moment after corresponding with our Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney for what seemed like the hundredth time in the last month. Since that was fresh on my mind, I decided to expand on my thoughts through writing.

The feedback I got wasn’t critical, at least most of it, but more questioning. The reason for that, and the reason for my surprise, is that I probably assumed people understood the basic concepts I operate on every day. That is an issue for people in all fields, because we all grow so ingrained in a culture we forget that there is a totally different perception in the outside world.

Some people thought there was more to the story than what I wrote about. For example, I was asked if I got a “bombshell” letter that I was hiding.

No, there wasn’t one letter that stuck out, although I have received some pieces over the years that could be considered bombshells if they had a shred of truth to them. The reason this issue was foremost in my mind was the volume of questionable letters, something that is unusual.

A couple people asked if I was comparing our policies to another newspaper. Again, the answer is no. All newspapers operate under the same laws — and most operate under the same ethics. I know our newspaper wasn’t the only one to receive at least a couple extreme letters and the other newspapers in the area handled them the same way we did.

Some of the other letters that weren’t as extreme may have been handled differently, as I did see them published in other newspapers in the area, but the differences aren’t so great that one way could be considered absolutely right and another wrong since there are a lot of gray areas in this matter.

Someone submitted a brief online comment that was critical, ending with the comment “any lawsuits lately?”

Again, the answer is no. However, that may be due to the way we handle commentary since we have them reviewed by an attorney. Besides, our policies aren’t just to prevent lawsuits. We would feel terrible if we played a part in ruining someone’s reputation by publishing false accusations.

The part that surprised most people, I discovered, is that newspapers are as responsible as the writers for what gets published. That was a revelation to many people, something I wasn’t aware of, probably due to being such an insider that I failed to remember most people don’t have the same grounding.

When I assured them that yes, there are legal and ethical ramifications for anything that gets printed, even if it is someone else’s opinion, some wondered if we could be accused of censorship for not publishing, or even modifying, submissions.

Newspapers aren’t bulletin boards. Whether it is opinion from others or news, we screen what goes in and modify content to our style and policies.

Part of that is based on practicality. For example, we don’t publish every “news” item we get due to space constraints. We are inundated with press releases, especially now that they are sent in electronic form, and we only use a small percentage, screening out items that are of little interest to our readers because they involve distant events or people.

If we do print a news release, often it is modified, often to help our readers because, for instance, the main point may be buried at the end or the original presentation is confusing. We go out of our way to retain the pertinent information in local news releases, but still may make modifications to serve our readers.

We try to publish all local opinions that come in the form of letters to the editor. But, again, it isn’t the same as sticking something on a bulletin board. They must meet our style and policies, which includes screening for libel.

Due to the reaction to last week’s column, it is worthy of reiterating that in a way, we become partners with the letter writers.

Perhaps the best way to explain it is comparing it to gossip.

Suppose someone told you some juicy item about another person that you are pretty sure isn’t true. You can choose to listen and end it right there, which is what our newspaper would do with something false or impossible to verify.

Suppose you decide to repeat the gossip, rationalizing that you are just passing it on — that it is someone else’s “opinion” and it doesn’t reflect your views. Aren’t you still disparaging an individual when you pass that falsehood on, even if you claim you are just repeating something from a friend?

That could be considered slander, which, I learned from one conversation, is the same as libel, but in an oral form. Even discounting the legal ramifications, you, along with everyone else who passes the falsehoods on, are slowly destroying a reputation, all of which has ethical ramifications.

If a newspaper takes a completely false accusation — even an opinion from another person that doesn’t mirror its views — and broadcasts that to thousands of readers at one time, well, the messenger, the newspaper in this case, is just as guilty as the person who made up the story.

In a way, our newspaper is one loud voice, which is why we need to take time to stop and think about what we pass on to our many readers. It’s not just a legal obligation, but also an ethical one.