Articles vs. opinion pieces
The other morning I got a call from an old friend who told me our newspaper wasn't doing its job. He said first we had neglected to do a story that he had suggested a few months ago about what he considers waste in the building of the new cross county ATV/multipurpose trail and then he read me the riot act for taking the side of Sanpete County on the Gooseberry Project.
I listened as he talked and he just said he felt that the paper had not been doing its job watching what was going on in county government.
First I explained to him that I finally had all the necessary materials to write the story on the trial system, but just hadn't punched out the story yet. As for the Gooseberry issue he was referring to, an opinion piece written by John Serfustini a few months ago that suggested there might be a way to cooperate with Sanpete County rather than fight them on the Gooseberry Project issue, it was, I said, after all, "...was an opinion piece."
"John has the right to voice his opinion," I told him. "That's the reason we have that page. I didn't agree with what he wrote, but he does have the right to write it. That's why it was on the page it was."
My friend on the phone (and he still is a friend despite his criticism of us) said that he thought as long as the man was working for this newspaper he shouldn't be writing things that could help the opposition. In kind I told him that I believe diversity of opinion is a good thing and helpful to everyone.
"I think it is good for people to see what others are thinking, even those that oppose a viewpoint that is being expoused," I said. "You no one has been a bigger supporter of Carbon County on this issue than this paper, but differing opinions are an important part of a newspaper's opinion page."
We parted electronically on good terms, but he still wasn't happy.
This brought to my mind how people consider newspapers and what is written in them. At our paper we strive for accurate facts in our news and feature articles and we try to lay things out for people so they can make up their own minds about issues. We strive to be neutral in news pieces.
However, on the opinion page it is a different thing. That is the place where varying views should appear.
It also brought to mind the issue the came up in an article I wrote for the front page of today's paper concerning the column by the Salt Lake Tribune's Paul Rolly concerning the Carbon County Commission's passing of a resolution that said that the federal government is subservient to the county on some issues, particularly when it comes to law enforcement.
Rolly's column upset many in the county. But do remember what it is: a column. Newspapers do things in different ways. The Sun Advocate for example will run opinion pieces only on the opinion page or under certain conditions on another page if it is clearly marked as a news analysis or an opinion piece. Over my years as publisher there have been a few times that we have run an opinion piece on the front page because of what we saw as an important issue that needed that type of exposure. However we have always clearly marked it as such.
The Tribune on the other hand has a number of columnists that run opinion pieces on front pages of various sections of their paper all the time. One of the most well known authors they do this with is Robert Kirby. Columns are not articles; articles are news or feature stories which are not supposed to have a bias (although sometimes you can see they do). Columns always have a bias; the author's bias. I had a lot of people talk to me about Rolly's column last week and they kept calling it an article. But it wasn't an article; it was an opinion column or his analysis of the news.
Nowadays, however, it is harder to tell what is what for a number of reasons. Tabloid journalism has invaded even the best of newspapers and sometimes it is hard to see the difference between opinion and hard news. People have become so accustomed to this that they sometimes can't discern that there is a difference. For instance if I write in an article that Joe Blow was arrested for allegedly distributing drugs on Main Street, that is a fact. (Or it is if it actually happened. We use the allegedly because he has not been convicted of a crime yet).
But if I write "Joe Blow, known dirt bag around town, was arrested for distributing drugs on Main Street" it becomes tabloid journalism. We try very hard to avoid doing this even though we may well know that Blow is what that sentence says he is and that he was most assuredly doing what he was arrested for.
Rolly has the right to his opinion, as wrong or right any us might think he is. In the case of his column, he is a columnist, expressing his views, not a reporter churning out facts, although he may think what he is writing is fact.
There is also another problem that comes out when newspapers are read on the web; opinion pieces are often mixed with the sections like they are on paper, but people do not discern one from the other like they do when they see the written page laid out. Therefore everything seems to be an "article."
Bias in the media is a big problem and always has been. Left wing, right wing, moderate or somewhere else far out in the political world there are those that want to turn opinion into fact. Most opinion is based on fact, at least a little. But it is how those facts are interpreted is what is important.
And if you seen any of those black helicopters in the sky, let me know so we can get a photo of one of them.