Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | May 19, 2009

Newspaper primer: Third time’s a charm?

“I want the news delivered unbiased. I thought that was the whole point with journalism.” ~ Boondocks cartoonist Aaron MacGruder

In the seven-plus years that I’ve been writing a newspaper column, I’ve twice seen the need to offer a newspaper primer to my readers. Sadly, I’m compelled to offer one a third time.

As a former newspaper reporter and editor and current columnist and editorial board member, I’m disheartened when I see how many people don’t grasp the simple concepts that I’m about to review.

Some folks lament the decline of newspapers based on circulation numbers or reports of newspapers folding or moving to online-only editions. My lamentations are prompted by an upswing in signs that people don’t seem to know — and worse, often don’t seem to care — about newspaper basics. I place a lot of the blame on cable television news.

First, it’s important to comprehend the difference between two types of content: news and opinion.

News articles appear on the pages that don’t have the word “Opinion” plastered in large letters across the top. They present an unbiased, factual accounting of events. The goal of news articles is to inform, not to sway opinion.

Opinion pages, which feature that hard-to-miss “Opinion” label, contain editorials, columns, editorial cartoons and letters to the editor. The goal of most opinion content is to persuade, to compel readers to take a particular action.

Editorials are opinion pieces that reflect the opinion of the majority of the editorial board.

Columns (like this) and letters to the editor contain the author’s opinion and analysis of current events.

Next, it’s important to understand who writes what:

• Reporters write news articles.

• Opinion writers write letters to the editor, columns, and editorials.

A reporter aims to inform the community about important current events.

Opinion writers aim to persuade. A letter writer might encourage residents to support a fundraiser. The editorial board might remind readers of the dangers of drunk driving. A columnist might oppose a particular proposition.

I shake my head — frequently — every time someone criticizes a column of mine by referring to me as a “reporter.” I’m a columnist. It’s a critical difference.

Because we live in the age of Fox News, which blurs — nay, obliterates — the line between news and opinion, many folks are confused about cable TV news content. But the local papers for which I write respect these boundaries, so there’s really no excuse for their readers to have difficulty discerning the difference in the content that appears in their pages.

Because, for example, television pundit Bill O’Reilly (imagine that, he’s on Fox News) likes to call himself a “journalist” even though he makes his living spouting opinions, many folks are uncertain about roles in the cable television news realm. But the local papers for which I write do not confuse reporters and opinion writers, so their readers should not have difficulty making the important distinction.

Finally, a few final points that bear emphasis:

• Subjects of news stories and opinion pieces are introduced with their full name and then referred to by their last name throughout the rest of the article or column. This is not a matter of disrespect but of long-standing newspaper convention.

• Editors write headlines. They are not written by reporters, columnists, or letter writers. If you don’t like a headline, direct your complaint to the editor.

• If you disagree with an opinion piece, don’t accuse the writer of being misinformed because you come to different conclusions about the proper course of action or meaning of events. If the opinion writer has a fact wrong, it’s fair to say she’s misinformed. If an opinion writer’s analysis of the facts is different than yours, it’s only fair to say that she has a different set of priorities than yours.

• Disagreeing with someone’s opinion does not constitute a personal attack. A personal attack is motivated by animus toward a particular individual. Differing opinions are caused by disagreements about priorities, leading people to dissimilar conclusions about the best course of action.

Understanding these basics will go a long way toward helping you derive more benefit and less heartburn from your local newspaper.

“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”
~ Philosopher Bertrand Russell

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Responses

  1. You know, I started to leave a comment over at the Times about this, but I figured it’s just oh-so lost over there.

    My guess to why that line between op-ed and reporter is blurred? You’re attached to a capital-N Newspaper.

    Amusingly, bloggers– regardless of the fact that some have ridiculous readerships– are rarely called ‘op-ed’ or ‘reporters’ (Unless of course they were a capital-R reporter, now publishing to a capital-B Blog). I’ve blogged for a decade, do not consider myself a journalist AT ALL, and well, kinda bristle at the ‘blogger’ label. (The notion of someone writing my headlines is just freaking WEIRD, man). The label thing is weird. If the blogger is big enough, they just become the brand. Labels be damned.

    At the end of the day, though, it’s just not a media literate world out there. That’s the REAL tragedy.

  2. What compelled you this time?

  3. […] at the same situation and come to completely different conclusions about the best way to proceed. I’ve often determined that this happens because the two people in question have different priorities. […]


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