Journalism 101; knowing the difference between a news story and editorial opinion

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Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2012 3:00 am

Every once in a while someone will write a letter to the editor complaining about my lack of objectivity in this column and accuse me of violating journalistic ethics.  I love it when people respond in some way to what I’ve written.  I don’t care whether they agree with me or not.  I’m  just glad someone took the time to read and respond.  But sometimes I get the impression that there are readers out there who don’t understand the difference between a straight news article and an editorial opinion piece.  It happened a couple of weeks ago and it’s happened again this week so perhaps a short class in Journalism 101 might be in order.

Most of the space in this newspaper, or any newspaper, is devoted to the publication of advertising and news.  The news articles report village and township news, stories about past and upcoming events, sports,  police reports, weddings, engagements and feature stories about people, places  and events, not to mention a whole bunch of photos about things going on in and around Antrim County.  We try to wrap most of those news articles in a newspaper writing style comprised of the  five W’s and the H - the who, what, when, where , why and how.  Actually those are components of the ideal lead paragraph of a news story and are intended to provide a framework for a fair and objective report of whatever the subject of the story may be.  We strive for fairness and objectivity in those news articles based on the facts as we know them and whatever additional information we are given by credible sources familiar with the topic or event.

But there is one page in this newspaper and just about every other newspaper I can think of, where objectivity  and even fairness doesn’t always necessarily rule,  and that is the page you are reading right now.  It is generally referred to as the editorial page and we title ours, “Opinion/ Comment.” It is the page where I frequently express my opinion on some issues and it is the page where you, the reader, are invited to express your opinion on just about any topic of your choice.  Most of the letters we receive and publish lack objectivity.  They express the opinions of the writers and opinions by their very nature usually lack objectivity.  The same is true of the editorial opinions I express.  It is what I think about a particular issue and I make no apology for it.  Is it objective?  Of course not.  it is my opinion of something that is taking place based on what I believe I know and what I have observed and what I perceive to be  the  motivation or the driving force behind it.  You may not agree because you view the same thing from a different perspective, based on your own observations, knowledge  and  perceptions.  The fact that my opinion is not the same as yours does not mean I dismiss yours as some act of moral or ethical  transgression.

In a letter to the editor that appears elsewhere on this page, a reader has accused me of the “most horrendous breach of journalistic ethics,” because I suggested in this space last week that  the statewide ballot proposals are  about  money and power grabs by labor unions and the owner of the Ambassador Bridge.  She would be right to accuse me of committing that “horrendous breach” if that information had appeared on the front page of the newspaper without any substantiation,  but appearing as it did on the “Opinion” page, the criticism is unwarranted.  I formed my opinion about those ballot proposals based on  what I’ve read about them and what I know about the individuals and organizations that put up the money to get them on the ballot and who are footing the advertising costs of promoting  their approval.  I stand by my opinion.

By the way, contrary to the misinformation published in that same letter, our letters to the editor policy has been, is now and will continue to be that we will not publish letters to the editor that promote or bash candidates but we do accept letters for or against  ballot issues, so if you feel strongly about any of the non-candidate issues that will appear on the November 6 ballot, and there are a bunch of them, we’d love to hear from you.  Get your letter to us so we can publish it this month.  We will not run any the issue prior to the election. Just please try to limit your letter to no more than 300 words.  Yes, I know,  I always go over 300 words expressing my opinion on stuff but that’s because newspaper ownership has its privileges.  But that’s just my  opinion

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