Jacobs: Separating news from opinion journalism important to highlight


As I get settled here as editor of the Pahrump Valley Times, one of the biggest journalistic priorities is making sure that we continue to emphasize having a newspaper with “fair and balanced” coverage while being thorough.

Right away, this brings me to one of my favorite things to advocate: labeling and identifying what is news and what is opinion in a newspaper.

Through the years, I am struck by how many times people refer to “columns” or “editorials” I have written or an “ad” I wrote.

Sometimes they throw me for a loop. Of all I have written through the years, probably less than 5 percent were columns. And probably less than 1 percent were editorials as a fill-in writer for someone on vacation, for example. I’ve never written an advertisement.

My background is in news reporting and editing, hitting the road and bringing the latest information to readers or fine-tuning someone else’s work.

Let me explain a bit more of the terminology. A column is an opinion piece offering a view on a topic. Hopefully, it comes with some expertise.

An editorial is also an opinion piece but reflects the official stance of a newspaper.

Advocating for or against a certain government policy or action is one example. So are new newspaper endorsements of candidates for public office. We don’t run editorials in the Pahrump Valley Times. But in newspapers that do where I have worked, the editorial writers are separate from the reporting staff. The editorial writers don’t tell reporters how to do their jobs or what to write.

As far as news coverage, articles or stories are the ones you see from reporters trained to be factual, independent and unbiased. Their work should be straightforward and without reflecting any personal beliefs by the writer.

Examples would be vehicle crashes, fires or coverage of the Nye County Commission, investigative reporting or feature stories on people in the community. Though opinions often are included in those articles, those opinions are those made by people involved in the topic, not the reporter/writer.

An example would be the recent Pahrump Valley Times story about President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget and its potential impact on social services in Nye County.

Though the article indicated social service programs would be hit hard if the budget proposal is adopted, the views expressed were the leaders of the groups whose programs could negatively be affected by funding cuts.

The concerns expressed in the story were not that of the reporter, who was relaying to readers what program leaders and other stakeholders were saying about the potential impacts.

CONFUSION UNDERSTANDABLE

As a lifelong newspaper reader, it is easy to see why readers might call any given publication “liberal,” “left-wing,” “conservative” or “right-wing.” That’s because the same newspapers — that include “just the facts” coverage of government, police, sports, business, education, storms, transportation and the environment — also run opinion pieces by columnists.

Examples of prominent conservative national columnists are George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Ann Coulter. Liberal columnists include Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman and Susan Estrich. In the Pahrump Valley Times, our Nevada columnists include Chuck Muth, Dennis Myers and Tim Burke.

Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that newspapers, in general, don’t do a very good job of labeling columns as “opinion” for readers.

The result is that all of the content seems to run together unless readers personally know the difference between a columnist sharing opinions or advocating for something and a reporter presenting information for readers in a straightforward fashion.

Columnists also have more leeway and could use their platform to break some news, on occasion too, similar to a news reporter. It all can get confusing. But seeing the capital letter I, without quotes, is a big clue that’s you’re reading a column. Reporters don’t write news stories in the first person.

Sports pages of newspapers across the USA are where the lines often blur. Prominent sports columnists, such as USA Today’s Christine Brennan, write opinion pieces based on what they see while sometimes advocating a position. Sports columns in American newspapers can run right next to a straight-up game story with basic details of what happened in the Super Bowl. Assuming readers will automatically separate a game story from an opinion column on the same game seems unrealistic.

MOVING FORWARD

When I arrived here in Pahrump, one of the first things I noticed was that a regular column by our sports editor, Vern Hee, is clearly labeled as “commentary” — in all capital letters. Not all newspapers add that simple label that lets readers know they are reading an opinion-related piece.

When you throw cable news channels into the mix, especially with their opinion-driven primetime shows, it is easy to see why some readers/viewers complain about overall journalism bias. Journalists gathering facts in the field are not the same as program hosts such as Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Sean Hannity of Fox News, to name just two. The same holds true with sports TV. Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless, Jim Nantz and Joe Buck are all sports journalists but not the same type. Smith and Bayless are on the opinion side. Nantz and Buck are on the play-by-play side.

One of the things we’ll aim to emphasize locally here at the Pahrump Valley Times is doing an effective job of labeling content to remind everyone that column writers are giving their opinions. That is far different than a reporter covering things such as a fire, a government proposal to increase/decrease taxes or reduce government oversight/toughen regulations.

In my own case, I am a bit of a hybrid journalist. You might see my stories on community news toward the front of this section. But what you’re reading here is a column. Writing a column like this while also covering some hard news (fires, community events, etc.) is a privilege. It’s one that I take very seriously, understanding the clear dividing point between fact-based news coverage and opinion column writing.

As the weeks unfold here, please drop me a line to let us know how we are doing, where we can improve and any concerns. All suggestions are welcome. I might share some of them with our readers. Until next time, have a great week.

Contact editor David Jacobs at djacobs@pvtimes.com