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Martinez: Saying goodbye to Opinion — but not the lessons

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

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I started and restarted the beginning of this column maybe a million times. Unsure of whether to completely roast the Opinion section or sing its praises, I sat in front of the computer for a good hour, avoiding writing my farewell, sipping my cold brew instead.

But now I’m ready.

The Opinion section has defined my life for the past four quarters. I started out as assistant in Winter Quarter, not having written since high school. I remember proudly penning a column about “Black Panther,” happy to have seen such a spectacular film. Then I checked the website the next day — waiting for me was a comment about how I was a pawn to capitalistic structures or something equally confusing. My first hate comment.

I want to set the record straight: I truly think the Opinion section is important and I highly encourage everyone to try penning an op-ed or Letter to the Editor at some point in their Northwestern career. It plays a crucial, yet overlooked, part in journalism. Nothing has prepared me for a career in reporting more — but not for the reasons you may think.

Every 30 seconds, a black female journalist or politician is harassed on Twitter. Women of color are 84 percent more likely to be the subject of abusive tweets. Those are hard facts, something the Opinion section uses in all columns, much to the surprise of many readers. We go through the same fact-checking process as the Campus or City sections, yet routinely, this section gets the most complaints about not incorporating facts into our columns, simply because the pieces are labeled as opinion.

These comments don’t necessarily faze me beyond the occasional gasp or chuckle. Whether I like it or not, they’re part of the job. I could write an in-depth investigative article or a short column about why I like a superhero movie, and someone will email me something borderline (or blatantly) racist and sexist in response. My mother once asked me about these comments: “Does Medill train you guys to handle these type of things?” I shrugged in response.

She doesn’t understand how I can be so blasé about the harassment. But I know it exists for a reason. People react so severely to my columns — which mostly center race and institutional oppression — because they’re ideas that are rarely talked about in newspapers. Journalism, which is a white, male, cis-heteronormative construct, was not made for women of color like me, or for the other marginalized identities many of my columnists hold. The entire journalistic process, from interviewing to writing to editing to publishing, is meant to exclude narratives like mine.

And that’s an understandably hard pill to swallow.

When someone tries to upend a way of thinking that has been cemented in national thought for centuries, it can be scary. It can be confusing — anger-inducing, even. I’m not saying I have particularly revolutionary ideas. In fact, many of the opinions I have are shaped by wonderful classes I’ve taken or people I’ve met, and I’m forever grateful to them for opening my eyes to perspectives I will most likely never read in a newspaper.

But the people who harass me are not open to disruption. My mentioning race or discrimination is seen immediately as ‘snowflake, biased, race-card behavior’ and triggers a response that often has nothing to do with my original column. It can be upsetting that bullying has defined my experience with this section. Yet these horrible comments only encourage me to write about these issues more, to try to disrupt the social order with my words. I’m sure the same is true for many of my wonderful and brave contributors.

However, this speaks to something more important — the power of opinion journalism.

It takes a lot of time to express a nuanced point-of-view, and tons of emotional labor to write about personal experiences, like many columnists choose to do. As an editor, I help people write and rewrite sentences until they can fully convey the depth of their perspective. We spend hours in the newsroom coming up with the best structure and word choices.

But a lot of that goes unnoticed because opinion journalism suffers from a resounding perception problem. People will always think writing columns isn’t journalism because it’s a compilation of someone’s personal views.

Yet, an opinion section is arguably the most important part of a publication after breaking news. It gives the power directly to the people, especially ones that don’t have historical access to writing news or being interviewed by the press. It allows for discourse to be publicly recorded for history. It can be emotional, raw and unprecedented.

In the past year alone, first-person accounts from actresses about their experiences with Harvey Weinstein, staffers working in the Trump White House and journalists explaining why free expression matters have quite literally changed world perspectives and started important, global conversations. Yet they’re branded as the exception, not the norm. In order for these dialogues to continue, we need to change that stigma — reporting cannot exist without its opinion counterpart. There is too much at stake when we disregard voices speaking on, largely, their own terms.

Next quarter, I will not write for this section as I make my return to news reporting. I’ll miss the freedom of being able to write long columns about the history of black journalism in America or about my experiences being a marginalized reporter in the newsroom. I’ll miss the smile of my contributors when we work out the perfect sentence to describe their perspective.

I’m confident that opinion writers will continue to start conversations on campus about queer representation, being a person of color and the joy of watching a movie with a character that looks like them. Those pieces make the barrage of negative comments we receive totally worth it. And I can’t wait to read them.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at marissamartinez2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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