June 1, 2010

Why Opinion Journalism (Still) Matters

The following is an expansion of a blog entry I wrote a few weeks ago about opinion journalism. I’ll be focusing on the rhetoric of opinion journalism  for the time being on Rhetorica.

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 newspaper columns, editorials, editorial 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.

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 challenges, biases, 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.

13 Responses

  1. A minor point: when you say Like reporters, opinion journalists should tell stories about citizens, you are (I think) using the word citizen in a manner that is different from the way some of your readers will read it. I have become perhaps oversensitized to the word; I tend to read it as a deliberate contrast to non-citizens. I don’t think you mean to imply that reporters or opinion journalists should refrain from telling stories about resident aliens, undocumented immigrants, tourists or for that matter flora and fauna. We need those stories, too, to be free and self-governing. Tom Friedman of the Times (who, for all his faults, is an opinion journalist) reports on stories of residents elsewhere in order to persuade us how to better govern ourselves—

    That minor point aside, I look forward to your reports about the state of opinion journalism. I hope you look at David S. Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix (with whom I am close from way back, so take my recommendation with the grain of proverbial); he is a terrific example of the kind of thing found in urban weeklies which I think is what you are looking for. He won an award a couple of years ago for a series attacking the BPD Homicide unit that were well-researched and reported, and were very much fulfilling the primary purpose as you see it. And what might be interesting to follow is his increased use of blogging/FB/Twitter as well as what seem to be his increasingly frequent appearances on television and radio as an analyst/pundit. I have wondered what the time pressures are for someone in that position, in terms of time spent reporting. On the other hand, he was recently able to use the Tweeter platform to get responses from the local candidates to the Rand Paul mess; there is something rather nice about the public question and response there.

    Just something to think about…

    Thanks,
    -V.

  2. acline 

    V. Thanks for the suggestion! I’ll check him out.

    Re: citizen

    I certainly do not mean to exclude non-citizens. I use it in the general sense of “people” but with the connotation of civic responsibility to the place in which one lives.

  3. I was pretty sure that’s how you were intending to use it, but of course it carries other connotations as well…

    And as it happens, the AltWeekly Awards Finalists were announced today and David S. Bernstein is on the list again—both as a reporter and a blogger.

    I’d be curious about the history of the AltWeeklies (with obligatory InterCap) taking over opinion journalism in the US, and how the different business model plays in to that. Well, not curious enough to do research on it, but still.

    Thanks,
    -V.

  4. acline 

    V. Hmmmmm… I’m curious enough to do it 😉 Actually, it’s summer and I have the time and inclination because it is part of my job. Interesting idea. I’ll look into it.

  5. You say you are creating an ideal portrait of opinion journalism. I don’t think it is ideal, just a good set of criteria with which to judge the work of opinion journalists.
    Some argue that print journalism needs to move more into asking, and answering, the “why” question. But there is still a strong place for the “what”. And when that has been answered the opinion journalist can get on a apply the very good criteria you suggest.

    Richard Sharpe
    Director Contentetc.com

  6. Abhishek 

    The state of Journalism in Jacksonville bothers me. The one local news paper (Times Union, (a href = http://jacksonville.com/>http://jacksonville.com) writes some articles on bicycles and transportation. The journalist in charge of these issues is Larry Hannan. Most of his articles seem to be a collection of people’s opinions that he interviewed. There are no inferences made and opinions cast. Only a report. Sometimes, the opinions are biased towards one side of the argument.

    I think reporting like this does more damage than good. It throws the majority of the citizen into a tail-spin fueled by ‘half-knowledge’. Citizen can always do their own research but not everyone does. They rely on the daily paper.

  7. acline 

    Richard… Agreed. I used “ideal” simply to indicate that I’m being prescriptive.

    Abhishek… Journalism has fallen into a state in which reporters too often think they have the story when they get the opinions of “both sides.” The real job requires fact gathering and verification.

  8. Tim 

    re: “Like reporters, opinion journalists should tell stories about citizens.”

    I’ll pick this nit. The sentence should read, “Like reporters, opinion journalists should tell stories about their community to its citizens.”

    I will also quote from the citation:

    They are the elements of journalism.The first among them is that the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.To fulfill this task:1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.2. Its first loyalty is to citizens….

  9. Tim 

    I really hate that there is no preview. Apparently line breaks w/in a blockquote are removed.

  10. Tim 

    The “knowledge and wisdom” link in the blockquote is broken (an extra /archive in the URL). The correct link: http://rhetorica.net/archives/002313.html

    I would also offer:
    http://w2jig.blogspot.com/2007/03/what-is-expert.html

  11. acline 

    Tim… The link is working for me. But thanks for posting it again. No idea why it didn’t work for you. And thanks for the second link.

    I’m cool with your nitpick 🙂

    Do you know if there’s a comment preview plug-in for WP? I’ll check.

  12. Tim 

    Andy, all links look good and work for me now.

    Maybe this one: Ajax Comment Preview

    And welcome back! I was getting jittery w/o my regular Rhetorica fix 😉

  13. acline 

    Tim… Cool. I’ll install by tomorrow. Glad to be back and glad you’re hanging in there!