The Inlander/February 2011
The complaint is frequent and directed at nearly all newspapers: Your editorial is “biased.”
The complaint misses the point that editorials, by definition, advance a singular point of view. In a way, editorials are similar to courtroom arguments. Opposing attorneys may begin with the same set of facts but are selective in what they use to try to persuade jurors to reach a certain conclusion.
Editorials and columns often are poorly understood by readers. That, in itself, is why they require a great deal of care and research by writers. The process begins with what often is the biggest misstep among opinion writers. The editorials of strongest foundation will present the issue, identify the facts and opposing viewpoints, and then reach a conclusion.
Presenting all sides of an issue is sound practice for writing any story. But it’s doubly important when writing editorials that advocate a call to action on a particular community issue. The individuals and organizations scrutinized, and maybe even taken to task, will be justifiably upset if editorials do not present all perspectives from firsthand sources.
Editorials are intended to focus attention on an issue of public significance. They may address something already in the news or may bring facts to the surface for the first time. They can be complimentary or critical. They might be controversial, and they might challenge people and institutions.
They should not, however, be positioned as the “right” or “sole” opinion on an issue. Indeed, letters to the editor written in response sometimes can be more persuasive than the original editorial.
Many readers appear almost mystified by editorials. The policy of signed vs. unsigned editorials is often at the center of that confusion – a policy that itself is debated among newspapers. Unsigned editorials represent the perspective of a newspaper as an institution in its community. At larger newspapers, it’s common for editorial boards to form a position, and then an individual or individuals craft the actual words. In smaller newspapers, one or two individuals may be responsible for nearly all editorials.
Do editorials reflect the view of the entire newspaper family? Absolutely not. Just as letters to the editor submitted by an organization do not reflect the opinions of their entire membership.
By no means, however, is there universal agreement on unsigned editorials. Many newspapers, whether large or small, are signed by the author.
However they are presented, editorials in many respects are – and should be – held to a higher standard than news stories. From an editor’s perspective, that underscores some basic dos and don’ts. Among them:
* Editorials should stick to public issues. Private businesses and individuals typically are off limits unless involved with an issue that enters the public arena.
* Editorials should not unfairly ridicule or tarnish a person’s reputation.
* Editorials should not distort facts to purposely mislead the public by creating a false impression.
Most important, a newspaper’s opinion page should be a forum for all opinions. It especially should encourage and welcome opinions contrary to the newspaper’s stated positions. To that point, newspapers may well specifically seek and publish commentary contrary to its editorials in order to spur community discussion.
The mission of an opinion page is to create a forum for all opinions. A lively exchange of ideas is at the heart of a vibrant community.