Newsroom Reflections: Lessons from the Opinion/Editorial section

I tweeted this little thought towards the end of my stint as my school newspaper’s Opinion/Editorial section editor.

In all honestly, I thought that the idea of publication of an opinion not being the same as endorsement, was pretty obvious. But, that tweet was the result of coming to a bit of a boiling point after reading multiple comments attacking the journalistic integrity of my newspaper for publishing some extremely unpopular opinions.

Running the opinion section of a paper often means running along a very thin line distinguishing between what’s publishable and what’s unpublishable.

But, as the Opinion/Editorial section editor, I knew it was my job to walk that line. The more I walked it, the more I became more confident in my own judgment to make that distinction. The role of the Op/Ed section is to provoke discussion and awareness of the news and share perspectives that challenge our own viewpoints.

Running the section definitely both challenged and strengthened my own convictions about different issues and topics. Knowing and understanding the ideas that you definitely don’t agree with, certainly helps you define and assert your own convictions. I saw this especially in the outcry of Facebook comments against different opinion pieces published in the section.

In journalism school, you don’t spend very much time writing about your opinions, which makes sense. The point of the profession is to amplify the voices of others–and that mandate is especially important to the Opinion/Editorial section. Journalism is meant to open up conversation, which is why when news broke, opinions came flooding in. My job as the section editor, was to moderate those opinions and keep opening up discussion.

In the process of publishing some opinion pieces, I had to grit my teeth, set aside my own bias, buckle down, and respect the good articulation and argumentation with which writers used to espouse what I personally thought were terrible ideas.

This year, I got a bit of a thrill seeing a Facebook comment box light up with multiple comments after a particularly well-written or especially controversial op/ed article. People were actively discussing the topics of the pieces being published in the section—this meant that I was doing my job well.

Unfortunately, balancing along a thin line also means the perception that you’ve crossed it, which is what led to the aforementioned tweet. Some commenters said some opinion articles, especially those that didn’t align with their own convictions, was bad journalism and got angry at the fact that they was published.

Let’s be clear here: opinion articles themselves are NOT journalism. The aim of any journalistic decision is to raise awareness and understanding of different perspectives and issues. If that was accomplished in publishing an unpopular but well-articulated opinion, then the journalistic aim of publishing aforementioned opinion was achieved—good journalism.

So, a question arises: what made a piece unpublishable?

This question will always come up in the process of putting together an Op/Ed section. Unbeknownst to angry commenters, there were a few times where I felt the need to refuse publication or at least work hard with the writer to make their piece publishable.

I can’t say these guidelines are universal to other op/ed section editors, but in my case, I refused to publish anything that I judged to fall along these guidelines:

  • Anything that outright and/or unjustifiably attacked a particular demographic or individual of the community
  • Anything I judged as not well-argued or factually justified
  • Anything that seemed to give off a skewed picture of statistically proven facts

And what may seem clearcut in your own guidelines/convictions about what’s publishable and what’s not, are often challenged by the writers and articles you encounter.  These guidelines are still up to interpretation for anyone who holds this kind of editorial position.

I’ve learned that even if you become confident in your own judgment to make and follow criteria for publication, some will never be okay with your choices, and that’s just the way it is.

Being the editor of the Opinion/Editorial section is akin to walking a tightrope above the flaming pit of public opinion. It’s thrilling and scary sometimes, but eventually, you learn to find your footing and walk confidently to the end of the line.

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