November 3, 2010

Why Opinion Journalism Matters

The following is an expansion of a blog entry I wrote when I changed the focus of Rhetorica. This blog began as an examination of press-politics. It morphed into an examination of media ethics. The current focus is opinion journalism — a dying part of the craft of journalism worth saving from its slide into punditry.

Sometimes Wikipedia is no help at all. Search for “opinion journalism,” and here’s what you get:

Opinion journalism is journalism that makes no claim of objectivity. Although distinguished from advocacy journalism in several ways, both forms feature a subjective viewpoint, usually with some social or political purpose. Common examples include newspapercolumnseditorialseditorial cartoons, and punditry.
Unlike advocacy journalism, opinion journalism has a reduced focus on detailed facts or research, and its perspective is often of a more personalized variety. Its product may be only one component of a generally objective news outlet, rather than the dominant feature of an entire publication or broadcast network.

The article is clearly marked as a stub, which means that it doesn’t meet Wikipedia’s standards for, among other things, detail, accuracy, and citation. It’s the start of an article on opinion journalism and not a very good one in my opinion. My opinion on this is based on my expertise (no guarantee of anything other than I didn’t simply pull this opinion out of thin air or rely on an ideological lens).
Besides being a rather poor start (you’ll discover why in the balance of this essay), this stub has the unfortunate distinction of being the first entry in a list of search results for “opinion journalism” on Google. I’ve actually had a couple of people — including a professor at my university — quote this stub to me as proof that I am wrong about opinion journalism. Whether I am right or wrong  is hardly a useful distinction here. I prefer to think of my thoughts on opinion journalism as useful in understanding how opinion journalists might fulfill the primary purpose of journalism. That is another way of saying that one can use my definition of opinion journalism as a critical lens for examining the state of journalism for the purpose of understanding its current practice and then, perhaps, demanding better. My description of opinion journalism does not so much create a contrast with “advocacy journalism” as it does with “punditry.”
Opinion journalism matters. It matters because the columnists (in all media) who produce it can be among the most effective journalists in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. Opinion journalists can make information useful by suggesting how to use it, i.e. how to think about it and how to react to it. Following good opinion journalists should help readers think about the news by encouraging them to critically examine news situations in particular contexts.
Opinion journalists also tell stories — focused on the lives of people — about their communities small and global.
Like reporters, opinion journalists should operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. Like reporters, opinion journalists should tell stories about citizens. Unlike reporters, however, opinion journalists use what they’ve learned from their reporting to, among other things, promote agendas and suggest solutions to civic problems. Here’s what I said in an oft-quoted posting of mine examining the difference between analysis and opinion journalism:

The key for me is good reporting in both analysis and opinion writing. The difference is one of intention: opinion should be about changing hearts and minds with knowledge and wisdom; analysis should be about knowledge and wisdom (i.e. organized information embedded in a context and the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems). Analysis, therefore, should not promote specific agendas; it should examine agendas.

In a jumble of words, opinion journalists report and tell us what they think about what they report and why they think the way they do about what they report.
Proper journalistic reporting is the primary form of invention in the rhetoric of opinion journalism.
Pundits need not report. They may certainly think. And they may even be well informed. Their opinions may even be valuable. But without acts of reporting (all that stuff that goes into operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification) that build a foundation of information and knowledge, punditry is 1) not journalism, and 2) of questionable utility in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism.
Exactly why should we give a rip about any particular person’s opinion — published in the paper or spoken on television — if not based on reporting or recognized expertise? I would ask the same question of my own commentary on Rhetorica? Why should you give a rip? Well, agree or not, I have demonstrated expertise — no guarantee of value, but at least my opinions are based on something. (You’ll notice I stick to a limited set of issues based on my education and experience. I have nothing of value to tell you about, say, abortion or deficit spending because I have not done the necessary reporting.)
On the local level, opinion journalism well done is all about caring about the community. It is all about being connected to the community. It is all about well-worn shoe leather and familiar faces. It’s all about visibility and transparency. The good opinion journalist is the person you meet for coffee to discuss her latest column. The opinion journalist is the one who listens (when reporters and editors too often do not). In other words, opinion journalism well done is all about the very things that are apparently important in the new media environment.
On the state and national levels, opinion journalism is also about caring about the community — just a larger community. State and national opinion journalists should be local opinion journalists writ large.
Yes, I realize I’m painting an ideal portrait. Opinion journalism is subject to the same communicative challengesbiases, and errors as so-called objective journalism. I believe the difference, however, is that good opinion journalism can present not only a informed opinion but an informed personality — one you can come to know and deal with whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em.
It is rather easy to criticize opinion journalism these days. In my opinion the craft is in  a sad state (24-hour cable news has played a role in this). Opinion journalism has largely slipped into the practice of punditry to the detriment of citizens.
I will also make it a goal to look for and promote good opinion journalism — from the rural weeklies to the network and cable giants. Rhetorica readers can help in this regard. If you read, see, or hear something good (i.e. opinion based on reporting), let me know.

June 25, 2018

Blogging Policy

Out of date. Editing…

Rhetorica Blogging and Comment Policy
The Rhetorica Media Ethics and Rhetoric Journal offers analysis and commentary about media ethics and the rhetoric, propaganda, biases, and spin of journalism. I hold to these “rules,” however imperfectly, as way to make this blog a trusted voice in the explication and criticism of journalism and language issues involving journalism and politics.
I will always try to:
1- Refrain from posting a link to any material I have not read thoroughly and carefully.
2- Make sure that I understand important concepts presented in source material and explain to my readers concepts at the foundation of my analyses.
3- Be fair in my representations of all political factions.
4- Remember that my purpose is academic, not polemic.
5- Update entries as new material becomes available.
6- Correct my errors and omissions promptly and publicly on the post where the error was made. If the error is egregious, I will additionally write a new, explanatory post.
7- Reply to correspondence as necessary promptly and politely.
8- Strive for the best writing and analysis that I am capable of producing–understanding that some days will be better than others.
9- Avoid posting off-topic entries unless I explain why I feel the need to go off topic.
10- Avoid criticizing the opinions of other bloggers.

Comments Policy: The comment system is open. I require an e-mail address to post a comment. I will not use of your e-mail address for any purpose other than its roll as comment verification in the WordPress content management system.

Podcasting Policy: I have upgraded my hosting service so that I may do podcasting.  The .mp3 files are large and eat up a lot of bandwidth. So I will erase older podcasts from time to time. I will, however, preserve the entries and comments. I will archive only selected podcasts.

Book Review Policy: I do not solicit books for review. Weblogs are rapidly becoming a sources of book reviews as publishers tap into the power of the blogosphere to target likely customers. If I accept a book for review from a publisher, I will follow through with a review on Rhetorica. The nature and scope of a review will be entirely up to me. I will only accept books in my teaching discipline (journalism), my research discipline (rhetoric), or my areas of interest closely associated with Rhetorica and  my teaching and research (language and communication issues involving journalism, media ethics, and politics). I will approach each book from my disciplinary perspectives. In addition, I will comment on the rhetoric of a given book, i.e. what outcome the author intends, how s/he articulates that intention,  and what use a reader may make of it. I will link to any associated websites. I will link to the book’s page on Amazon. I do not participate in any associate or advertising programs with Amazon or any other bookseller.

The Rhetorica Network provides an independent and academic voice in civic affairs. I do not accept advertisingtips, or other forms of compensation for this site. I am not now, nor have I ever been, in the employ of any political faction, politician, or party. I am paid by Missouri State University to, among other things, disseminate my research and expertise. The Rhetorica Network provides one venue for that effort.

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