Take two steps to avoid opinion page disaster
A college newspaper I admire is taking a minor public relations beating at the moment over a faulty opinion column. Two steps would have spared the editors this unpleasantness– two steps I often see missing in college media opinion writing and editing.
- Label opinion. Prominently. Explicitly. On all platforms.
- Apply journalistic standards. “Facts” in opinion writing must be facts. Fairness is still a requirement.
Step 1: Label it.
The column in question was tweeted as a news headline. I see this much too often from campus media. The first problem here is that you mislead the reader before she even clicks on the link. If the tweet says, “University fails to meet diversity standards,” I expect to see an article showing in real numbers how some agreed-upon standards have been missed. If I get one person’s statistic-free analysis of what he sees around the Quad, I’m disappointed.
But let’s move on to the column online or the opinion page in print. Maybe the writer has a “columnist” byline, like the one in my unfortunate example. That is just not enough. Today’s journalism students are probably the last generation which will have any appreciation for the difference between a “column” and an “article.” An individual’s opinion should be labeled prominently — in print, online and in social media — as “My Opinion,” “One View,” or whatever makes it clear this person speaks for one person, not the newsroom.
Your readers also don’t know the difference between “column” and “editorial.” So a different label is needed for the institution’s opinions. Two good examples:
Our Take: Adderall use and the pill-popping culture doesn’t come without potent consequences, ow.ly/htNId
— Red and Black (@redandblack) February 6, 2013
— Daily 49er (@daily49er) February 7, 2013
Step 2. Facts and fairness.
Make plain to opinion writers that they are expected to be reporters. The columnist in our example failed to check on the names of some of the key players involved in the issue and relied on hearsay for one “fact” that turned out to be mythical. You would not tolerate that in a news story, and you must not on the opinion page.
I know this is a challenge when you accept columns from non-staff members. But you should insist they cite easily checked sources, even for national news. Insist that they link to those sources, or at least give you the links if you don’t require web-ready submissions. As Steve Buttry (follow him on Twitter) has argued, linking can be a powerful self-correcting fact-checker for the writer.
And for staff member or outside writer, absolutely insist that logical counter-arguments must be heard. On national issues, this may be as simple as citing the public statements of those being criticized. But when a columnist or editorial writer criticizes a local figure who has not previously answered the criticism in public, the writer must ask for a comment. If a columnist condemns the library staff for not allowing coffee in the reading room, she must ask the staff for the reasons. Perhaps food and drink caused $10,000 in damage to books and computers. Perhaps fights broke out over spilled drinks. You don’t know until you ask.