Monday, November 15, 2004

Should Newspapers Have Editorial Opinions?

A colleague referred me to a recent (pre-election) piece by Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, in which he asks, "Should newspapers endorse candidates?" His main point is:

Enlightened newspaper editors and owners have come to understand that when they endorse a political candidate their news coverage becomes suspect in the eyes of readers, even though most reporters are basically fair and accurate.
I'll take it a step further and ask why newspapers would have any editorial opinions--unsigned pieces attributable to the editorial board of the paper--whatsoever. Once newspapers have presented the facts that a reader would use to make up his or her own mind, of what incremental value is it for the newspaper itself to draw a conclusion as if it represents the views of the organization? Having a strong ideology in any part of a news organization calls into question--in appearance if not in fact--the lack of that ideology in other parts of the organization. One would think that any threat to the integrity of the news coverage would be avoided at all costs (financial and otherwise).

There is a popular demand for editorial and opinion writing, and there is still a role that newspapers can play in this regard. They can assemble a team of columnists that provide a wide-ranging but balanced set of opinions--opinions that are directly attributable to the author and not the paper as a whole. I think the Washington Post does this better than any other major paper, but I don't think they do a substantially better job than my usual trifecta of Andrew Sullivan, Powerline, and Brad DeLong. They may still command a bigger readership than blogs, and so could use access to that readership to enforce higher quality from their columnists. I don't think that happens nearly enough.

I also think that the mainstream media will improve (eventually) due to the competitive pressure from blogs, in two areas. First, the MSM will become better about linking directly to sources to provide factual support for its arguments. Second, the MSM will become better about correcting factual errors as soon as they are pointed out and in a more forthright manner. I guess we'll have to hope that these two changes happen sooner rather than later.


Anonymous said...

The idea that newspapers should cover only "pure news"
is suspect. Factual events are easy but each
day the newspaper editors have to pick and choose
which stories to present and it is not at all
clear to me how this can be done without
someone's opinion directing it. Newspapers can and
should do a better job informing us on what is
opinion and what is based on which fact but
without opinion and culling, there is no
distinguishing between a great
newspaper and a rag of factoids.

Anonymous said...

Think about this, Andrew--in other countries like England, newspapers have far more explicit political leanings than any US paper, even the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page. Yet many English newspapers like the Guardian, the Financial Times, etc, have excellent reputations for high-quality news coverage.

Anonymous said...

Your link for Brad DeLong goes to a domain squatter. I think you probably meant .net instead of .com.

As to the topic of editorials, first of all I don't think there's any difference between signed and unsigned editorials. The Manchester Union Leader has a long history of signing their editorials, and IMHO that only reinforces the perception that the far-right agenda of their editors and publishers is entrenched in everything the paper does. Second, I doubt even that completely removing editorial board opinion pieces would do much to change overall perception of bias in different papers. Did CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and FOX run edtiorials giving their networks' endorsement to either candidate? I'm not aware that they did (or that they didn't for that matter), but I certainly know where each of them is perceived to stand on the political spectrum. I think, therefore, that it is more intellectually honest for editors to, in effect, be saying "We do have opinions. Here they are. Now that you know where we stand, you are better able to judge how well we are meeting our ethical obligation to report news objectively on every other page of our newspaper. Write to us if you disagree with our opinions, and we'll publish your letters."


Anonymous said...

I see the value of ideological editorials as a filter, gauge, or correction factor lens which allows one to read the rest of the paper "with a grain of salt".

If I read the NY Times, I *expect* Bush-bashing. So I adjust in consequence and only pay attention to severe attacks on Bush, while the mild ones are dismissed.