January 1, 2010

Why Opinion Journalism Matters

Recently I blistered my local newspaper (and quit subscribing) because I think it has become toxic to our civic discourse. In other words (and in my opinion), the paper is actually harming the natural give-and-take of working out our civic issues with passion tempered by facts and reason. Rather than fostering a dynamic agora, it actively divides the community by daring citizens to take sides based on a simplistic understanding of political experience — right v. left.

The News-Leader’s most damaging transgression: Firing the last opinion journalist in Springfield (Sarah Overstreet) and filling its Voices section with amateur punditry.

I’m sure those amateur pundits are saving the News-Leader a lot of money. But at what cost to its credibility?

Opinion journalism matters. It matters because the columnists 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.

Like reporters, opinion journalists operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. Like reporters, opinion journalists tell stories about citizens in their communities. 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.

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 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.

The letters-to-the-editor section is the place for local, amateur punditry, i.e. the spouting of opinion. Letters (and online comments) are a necessary and valuable service newspapers provide to the agora. The balance of the precious space in an editorial section is just too important to turn over to what amounts to glorified letters to the editor.

The News-Leader has essentially been allowing a few members of the community to blog in print without the benefit of fact-checking or an understanding of the conventions of journalism. Their contributions are rarely valuable or useful because their contributions are rarely based on anything more than their opinions.

This stuff doesn’t pass the “who cares?” test.

Exactly why should we give a rip about any particular person’s opinion — published in the paper — 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.)

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.

Yes, I realize I’m painting an ideal portrait. Opinion journalism is subject to the same communicative challenges, biases, and errors as so-called objective journalism. I believe the difference, however, is that good opinion journalism presents 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.

8 Responses

  1. Tim 

    Journalism well done is all about connecting to and caring about the community.

    Opinion journalism is an informed personality in the community that facilitates the the public’s need for “cacaphonous conversation“.

  2. acline 

    Tim… Good link. Cool. Facilitating isn’t innocent, as you know. If a news organization is going to do it by publishing the work of an opinion journalist, then I think the public ought to expect that the opinion is backed up by something, i.e. reporting and fact-checking for starters. I have opinions about abortion and deficit spending, but they are worthless as civic discourse, IMO, because they have been formed by something less than a vigorous study of the facts. They have been formed mostly by ideology. So they don’t pass the “who cares?” test — just like the “regular contributors” to the N-L Voices section. I want those contributions to meet a certain standard of journalism. Then let the cacophony begin!

  3. Jason 

    You’re so right here it’s scary, Andy. Keep up the pressure.

  4. Tim 

    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Of the Relation of Public Associations and the Newspapers

    A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought, but that comes of its own accord and talks to you briefly every day of the common weal, without distracting you from your private affairs.

    Your opinions about abortion and deficit spending are not worthless as civic discourse, but very important in building associations, engaging in conversation, and (never innocently) trying to persuade and consequently leaving yourself vulnerable to persuasion.

    It may be that the newspaper only has room for a steady staple of the The Yummy Donut of Status Quo Bias and the production of innocence requiring editorial control of the presentation of information.

  5. Tim 

    BTW, I agree that “toxic” is the correct descriptor for the rhetoric and gave up on Xark! (and Dan Conover) in 2008 for similar reasons.

  6. acline 

    Tim… I agree re: “important in building associations, engaging in conversation, and (never innocently) trying to persuade and consequently leaving yourself vulnerable to persuasion.” But my agreement is medium/venue dependent. Ask me what my views are on these things, and I’m happy to tell you. I’m happy to discuss them with anyone, or write them to anyone, in an appropriate venue.

    If I hope to do so in the newspaper, I think I should bother to make my case based on something more than my ideology — my ideology tempered by reporting, i.e. I do the work necessary to deliver information and knowledge.

    So, if I write for the newspaper that, for example, I think abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” then I owe it to the public to have done the work to justify that opinion by something more than ideology.

  7. Tim 

    re: But my agreement is medium/venue dependent.

    Your position seems to be that the “newspaper” medium/venue requires greater logos and it is poor kairos to allow pathos in lieu of logos?

    You also seem to value ethos in deciding who newspaper editors should allow, because it implies a greater reliance on logos when making an arguement?

    These “higher” standards for rhetoric in the newspaper medium/venue are important to you. I disagree that the medium is the message here, but rather content is king.

    Are you objecting to the toxicity of the content only because it is in the newspaper?

  8. acline 

    Tim… Yes. To put a finer point on on your observation re: ethos: I’m wanting editors to consider invented ethos rather than situated ethos. And to your final question: yes.

    re: content is king

    I want to agree with this, but in this case I’m having a hard time separating content from medium. Or, rather, in this case I’m trying hard not to separate them for reasons that make me cling to the idea that newspapers should be “better” than other media — sort of a Postman-like position, I suppose.