Critical Thinking

As More Editorial Pages Publish Controversial and Unpopular Views, Should Newspapers Rethink Their Opinion Section?

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As more editorial pages publish controversial and unpopular views, should newspapers rethink their opinion section?

Madison Scott, 22, senior, Harding University, Searcy, Ark.

Scott is pursuing degrees in public relations and Spanish. She is the editor-in-chief of The Bison, the university’s student-led newspaper. Her professional experience includes working for an Oklahoma City-based public relations agency and serving a wide breadth of nonprofit organizations. Upon graduation, Scott aspires to continue her career in communications and further her ability to speak Spanish. 

In an age where it is not uncommon to use “quarantine” and “racial justice” in the same sentence, credible editorial pages are arguably more important than ever. The world is seeking answers and trustworthy opinions to help make sense of what is all around them. The current era of media, and particularly algorithmic digital platforms, can oftentimes focus more on audience retention and engagement than documenting and recording history; this causes the news that people consume to reinforce what they may already believe, perpetuating the problem. Additionally, this rhythm can even be amplified within editorial pages. For this reason, editorial pages should be held to the same standards as other sections of the newspaper, and publications must be particularly mindful of the opinion pieces they publish. However, readers must also be aware of the purposes editorials serve.

Editorial pages should be taken for what they are: editorial. The opinion section of any publication should be a platform for people to defend, react to, or challenge an idea. Ultimately, opinion pieces leave the reader with the opportunity to decide what they believe; they should offer people a fresh perspective on an issue and allow them to critically choose whether to take or leave it. 

However, for this to effectively happen, supporting evidence is crucial. Newspapers must require their writers to offer not only a compelling perspective, but also grounded data and experience to strengthen and guide their argument. Because the current issues at hand carry immense weight and are controversial in nature, publications must be diligent about what opinions they allow to reach their readership. These articles must come from a pool of expertise, and not merely a person who needs to rant. Yes, freedom of speech and press still exist and are important, but there are other platforms to express unfiltered ideas and frustrations.

Newspapers ought to remember the importance of editorial pages and mimic the same standards and ethics as all parts of journalism, being rooted in truth, fairness and balance. Holding these criteria as a guiding principle will help hold publications accountable and create trustworthy information to best serve their audiences and beyond. 

Rana L. Cash, 49, executive editor and Georgia state director, Savannah Morning News, Savannah, Ga.

Cash has been a professional journalist since 1993. Before joining the Savannah Morning News in June, she was the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal. She is a Florida native and graduate of Florida A&M University.  

Intellectual jousting has long held center stage in newspaper opinion pages. Philosophies on politics, race and gender are among the many topics that have created great theater by those who use the platform as a megaphone to exclaim all that’s right and wrong in the world.

The opinion sections have been think-tanks and bully pulpits. In recent years, it has devolved into much more of the latter. The balance has tilted severely toward personal attacks, conspiracy theories and mean-spirited rhetoric. Gone is the polite debate stage in print and online.

With that, the attachment to editorial pages by news publishers has waned. Giving prominent voice, regardless of political stripe, to fringe arguments that weaponize the freedom of speech we cherish can be dangerous.

Many news organizations have rightly reimagined the power and purpose of editorial and opinion pages. That is the case at the Savannah Morning News and at the Augusta Chronicle—two of the three daily papers I lead—along with the Athens Banner Herald.

We have taken strides to talk less and listen more.

For us that means soliciting the contributions of our community to share in our opinion content. We have urged representatives from all walks of life—local government and education, faith and social activism, healthcare, science and the environment—to speak to Savannah’s readers about Savannah issues.

We also have a robust inventory of podcasts and a growing video platform that broaden access to our content and offer our community contributors multiple ways to provide thoughtful solutions and ideas about our city.   

Our readers have lots of interest in national topics and we provide those, but only from trusted outlets that fact-check and vet contributors. Opinion columnists must be held to the same standard as other journalists. To not be vigilant on this point invites some of the embarrassing situations some newsrooms have recently faced.

Of course, our voice has not gone silent. When the weight of the moment demands it, when the community must hear from us as an institution, we won’t hesitate to speak up. By practicing restraint, we believe our staff editorials will resonate that much more.  

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