An opinion page in a newspaper is there so people can read other peoples points of view and can look at different opinions about subjects in the news as well as outside the news. The page also usually contains some (hopefully) humorous columns as well as a cartoon or two that makes everyone think about what is going on in the world. It is all meant to give people an idea about what others think about things.
I personally think that is a good thing.
But sometimes what people find there makes them mad as well. That may or may not be a good thing, although many opinion page editors I know think they are not doing their job if someone isn't upset in one way or another each time the page is published.
In the last few weeks, as the acting editor of the Sun Advocate's opinion page, I have gotten an earful from some people concerning what we have published. Some took issue with opinions voiced on the page, and some even took issue with the fact we had published certain pieces at all.
I even had one that questioned whether we should have an opinion page in our paper at all.
A newspapers obligation to its community is to not only present the news in the most factual way possible, but also to let people see that others may not view issues the same as they do. An opinion page also gives both the staff of a newspaper and the general public a place to voice their concerns, ideas and concepts of what is going on at any one time.
But the opinion page is also not a place where everyone can have their say any way they want either. We do have to have parameters on what we can and can't carry, and in what way we publish a opinion piece. Here are some of the rules we have to follow, along with the reasons we have those rules.
Letters to the editor. A letter to the editor cannot defame an individual or a business. Letters should always be issue oriented without personal attacks in them. Calling someone "stupid" for having a different opinion is not free speech, but ignorance. We also will not allow people to point fingers at individual public employees or employees of private firms concerning problems. Elected officials can be mentioned, particularly if they are on one side of an issue or have taken action that the writer does not agree with. However, I give people who personally attack even those officials little latitude.
I also often get letters that complain about either something going on in the county or something someone else wrote in one of our columns or news stories. Some of those writings are great letters that should be published, but unfortunately many of the best issue oriented letters we get are unsigned or request that their names not be put on the letter when it is published. Our paper has a policy of never publishing anonymous letters, nor will we withhold a name upon publication. We feel people need to stand up for their convictions and be counted, and there is also a question of liability if we publish letters like that. In addition, if a letter were to appear anonymously, there would be those that think newspaper staff had composed them. That is why we always require a name and always will.
Regardless whether a person brings a letter into the front desk themselves, we need a current phone number placed on the letter. Often I get great letters I can't confirm because there is no phone number. Even when the numbers aren't there I try to find the person, by looking in the phone book, talking to staff and even looking up subscription information. But more than 50 percent of the time I can't find a number so the letter doesn't get published.
Finally, we have what I call the "30 day rule." We will not publish more than one letter from the same person, regardless of the subject within a 30 day period. Some people bring us numerous letters all at once, and we have to pick which to run first, then we run another when 30 days have passed, then...well you get the idea. And remember, letters to the editor in no way reflect the view of the paper or its staff.
Local columns and editorials. In the last few months we have switched from having much of our opinion page editorials and columns from being national "canned" pieces to local ones. Our staff columnists include Terry Willis, Tom McCourt and myself, and periodically someone else on our crew will also write a piece as well. As a group we spend a lot of time talking about and being concerned with community sensibilities. Once in awhile one of us will write something that really steps on someones toes, and we usually hear about it. We take these complaints seriously and evaluate them to help us make our opinion pieces better. To be honest sometimes we write something that is just in fun and none of us suspect it will really draw the ire of community members. Obviously, some columns we write are better than others, depending on your point of view. We will continue to be sensitive to community feelings, and seek your opinions on these issues as well. Remember too that any opinions expressed in columns are only the private view of the person writing the column, not the papers, not anyone else who works here.
In a five day period not long ago, I got calls from three different people, with one saying the opinions we feature are too conservative, another saying that they are too liberal and another saying that they are too middle of the road. We know we can't be all things to all people, but in the case of these three people we apparently were.
What political stance we appear to have taken often depends on the person reading the papers political persuasion. However, despite the fact most of the time I consider myself a little left of the middle, I spend a lot of time trying to illicit columns and letters from all different points of view. Unless a piece is one that could upset community sensibilities (and those sensibilities change from moment to moment) we always allow an opinion to appear in our paper. For instance, over the past few months there has been a real controversy swirling over whether the war in Iraq was justified. I have tried to include all the points of view I can find on this, particularly when readers write to us about it. I believe we have published letters from those who strongly support the president's actions to those who think his policies and the way they have been conducted are completely off base. Regardless of whether I agree with any of those letters has nothing to do with whether they get published or not. It has to do with space limitations, the way the letters are written, liability issues and if they just make sense.
Political cartoons. I am the one that selects the political cartoons from the hundreds we have to choose from that are supplied by a wire service. Once again, I try to see that some are relevant to current topics. I work hard to vary them between conservative and liberal slants. Again, I also get concerned with certain cartoons because of their content and community sensibilities. A couple of years ago I printed a cartoon that one woman called me about and she told me that we shouldn't even have political cartoons in the paper because they are ridiculous. Political cartoons are like every other opinion piece, but they use a visual means to convey their meaning rather than words. They are a viable part of every opinion page and without them, and the satire they bring, I think opinion pages would be rather dull.
Anonymous calls. We get a lot of these. People often call about their concerns, and most tell us who they are, are courteous and even if we agree to disagree, they keep their cool. Only once in awhile do I get someone calling that gives me their name that becomes rude or uncivil.
On the other hand, a great many of anonymous calls that we get complaining about the opinion page are rude and sometimes frightening to staff members who answer the phone. Abusing the staffers who answer the phone at this paper does no one any good, because they don't control what goes in the paper. If you have a gripe, call us, but tell us who you are; there are no newspaper police out there to get you. We don't mind having a dialogue with someone who disagrees with us, but have the decency to let us know who we are talking too. You obviously know who we are, so be fair.
The opinion page is not an easy part of the newspaper to manage, but for me, maybe because of that challenge, it is the most enjoyable. Public discourse on all kinds of subjects is important in our democracy. Just because a few people don't want to talk about a certain subject or don't think it should be mentioned in public, doesn't make it irrelevant, so we will continue to try and address all kinds of issues from various points of view.
For more information on our policies on news, sports, social news, advertising, the opinion pages or almost anything else, readers can go to sunad.com to read up on them or we can supply a copy at a readers request.
And please keep those comments and letters coming; they are the lifeblood of our paper and the community.