Perry: The blurred lines between news and opinion

Alex Perry, Opinion Editor

A faulty assumption I’ve made about The Daily’s readership is that all members understand the distinction between the news and opinion section of a publication. Although all editorials are published with a disclaimer, readers sometimes express concern about the section’s content and what it says about the paper’s staff and overall standards. 

Let me be clear: unless explicitly noted, the work published in the opinion section reflects the ideas of the author and the author only. As opinion editor, my job is to curate an educated section that not only complements the news section of the paper, but also offers commentary on the challenges the Northwestern and Evanston communities face. 

But because our distinctive sections are published under the same nameplate, I should explain the unique relationship opinion staffers have with our news-oriented counterparts. 

Seeing that we share the same readership, our sections prioritize similarly focused content, whether they be campus issues, local politics or national policy. In my opinion, true news journalism has a clear-cut goal of informing the public. Its baseline characteristic is providing an accurate depiction of a subject through factual, verifiable information or quoted reputable sources.

However, I’ve discovered this rigid dichotomy has snags. Using this framework, a news story about lead pipes is not meant to encourage laws banning lead pipes, but to inform citizens that their tap water is unsuitable. (Journalistically sound, but stepping away from making that judgment feels morally questionable.) 

News stories have covered topics that our society considers clearly bad and wrong, like Catholic child sex abuse scandals, war crimes and cheating presidents. Because of these stories, it appears that the media advocates for the underdog, challenges authority and pursues justice.

But what qualifies me, a 19-year-old journalism and economics major, to be the arbitrator of justice? I tend to lean toward a more traditional style of journalism, but now that I’m in college, I’ve been exposed to new theories concerning the industry. 

Is it possible for factual journalism to simultaneously avoid editorializing while producing work that results in justice? Here’s my answer, using clay as an example. 

True news journalism acts as a clay mold. As best as it can, it captures its subject accurately and produces a 3D model, or an identical sculpture. I use the phrase “true news” because, in a perfect world, all perspectives would be captured. The reality is the hands that mold the story sometimes leave dents, imprints and uneven shapings in the clay. 

The great part is that in taking this mold and aggregating as many perspectives as possible, the news is able to reflect our society’s judgement. This means that our news stories, if they clearly demonstrate a slant, are because our demographic slants a certain way, not the news.

For opinion writing, the writer can take the same clay, mold it according to the subject, and slice off certain bits of the model, so that certain perspectives are brought to the forefront and others are completely discarded. This way, there is clear intent to represent the subject a certain way. The similarity between news and opinion is that the original facts — the clay — are the same. 

(By the way, if you ever find yourself disagreeing with me, you should submit an opposing piece to the paper — I’d gladly accept it.)

During my tenure, this opinion section will be home to educated and mature pieces. I commit to all work published under The Daily’s nameplate being held to a high standard. This does not mean it must be ideologically similar to my own beliefs, but rather demonstrate maturity, strong assertions and compelling reasoning. Ultimately, our paper’s content should reflect the beliefs of the two communities we serve. It doesn’t serve our readers if it’s not.

Alex Perry is a sophomore studying journalism and economics. You can contact her at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @WhoIsAlexPerry

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