Shoptalk: Separating News and Opinion
A Web commentor has raised a good question about my opinion piece that ran in this space last week.
In it, I took issue with the virulently anti-government attitudes displayed by so many of the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls. I asked where we would be without governmental entities such as the Interstate highway system, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and so on. I also got in a little dig at Rick Perry.
This prompted "Bentpan," a reader of thepilot.com, to post this comment:
"Mr. Bouser, I found your editorial to be disappointing, especially as written by the editor, as in who is in control of content. I always thought the press' primary duty was to remain unbiased, to report the facts, to be the Fourth Estate. Yet your obvious vitriol against basic conservative beliefs makes it clear that you not only disagree but you feel they should taken out of context and be belittled."
Actually, the piece in question was a personal column like this, not an editorial - which is an unsigned piece such as the one that runs down the left side of this page, and which represents the opinion of the newspaper as an institution. But that's a common mistake.
"Is this your idea of a fair clinical approach to journalism, or is it that reporting the facts are not all that important to you?" Bentpan continued. "If parroting Democrat talking points is of such importance, perhaps a career in politics would be more suitable to you than journalism."
No thanks on the politics. As for the rest of the message, let me say that reporting of facts is, indeed, of paramount importance to me and my newsroom colleagues. I also share Bentpan's concern about the decline of objectivity in the news media generally.
This has been a subject of past columns, as when I bemoaned the abandonment of objective news by Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left, leaving poor old CNN losing viewers while attempting to play it down the middle.
In print media, too, there should always be a clear line between objective news, which typically appears on the front page or other news pages in the A section, and nonobjective opinion matter. The latter is generally relegated to separate pages - or in our case, a separate section - clearly labeled as such.
If Bentpan or others should ever find us crossing that line and contaminating our news-page articles by slipping opinions into them, I hope they will alert me immediately, because that is a cardinal journalistic sin.
As to keeping the people in charge of the news reporting "clinically" separate from those who comment, that's generally an ideal that works well for big papers but not so well for small ones like this.
In another life, I once worked in the giant Miami Herald building. I started out as a lowly copy editor in the news department, where our executive editor was in charge of news and reported directly to the publisher. Later I was transferred to another job in a different part of the building, where I handled letters and edited columns and worked for an opinion editor who reported separately to the publisher. And never did the twain meet.
In a community paper like The Pilot, things aren't so simple. There are only so many positions to go around. My job description as editor puts me in charge of both news and opinion, and I divide my time between them. When I'm involved in decisions about news coverage on the front page, one set of considerations applies. But if I put on my editorial-page hat, then opinion is the name of the game.
Is it asking a lot of the reader to try to remember which hat a small-town editor might be wearing at any given moment? Perhaps. And I do understand where Bentpan is coming from on that.
But would it be a mistake for a person in a job like mine to simply quit trying to walk that tightrope and stop exercising his right and responsibility to express his opinions on important issues, remaining pure and above the fray?
The answer to that one is also yes. Or at least such is - if you will pardon the expression - my opinion.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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