Monday, November 24, 2008

Opening Pandora's Box: Online Responses to Editorials

The opinions page is the central nervous system of a newspaper. Messages are sent from the audience, or the Metro section, and analyzed by the brain. Information is collected, processed, and then sent out in to the rest of the world in the form of an opinion or debate. Whereas the Metro section is the heart of the paper; an integral part of the machine that brings life to the newspaper. However, the Metro section is largely an involuntary organ; in other words, it’s without thought. Now before every member of the Metro section grabs a pitchfork and torch, hear me out. A Metro reporter is bound by impartiality. Fairness, accuracy, and thoroughness guide a story based on the facts collected by the reporter. Metro is the opening statement of the case – a statement of fact; whereas, the opinions page is the closing argument – an element designed to persuade through argumentative language.

My point being, that an opinions section is, by its very nature, biased. The columnists and editors of the opinions section are not employed to be impartial. We exist for the sole purpose of opining about current events or judging ideologies. Our job is to critique, condemn, and condone. At times, our job is to be objective about two contrary views; while on other occasions, we may aim for provocation. We exist to simulate thought and discussion through salient and terse editorials; our section is not designed to be “fair and balanced” or to “stick to the facts” when constructing an essay that cannot be more than 700 words.

In other words, the myriad of online critiques we receive about “only presenting one side” of the story is a straw man argument. Of course the essay is a one-sided argument. It’s an opinion. It’s a subjective essay designed to persuade or stimulate a debate. If you’re looking for objectivity or in-depth coverage, you are reading the wrong section. Seven hundred words may sound like a lot to those of you that struggle to write a cohesive or complete term paper, but it’s actually quite difficult to present and defend an argument in a concise and persuasive manner in less than 70 lines.

Put differently, try really hard to come up with a better rebuttal than “Why didn’t you mention [insert some tangentially related topic]?” Case in point, among the recent responses to the Chief Illiniwek editorial some responders felt the need to start arguing non sequiturs like the origin of state names, the Washington Redskins, and the Florida State Seminoles. The editorial wasn’t about any of those topics. It was focused on the resurrection of Chief Illiniwek. Bringing up red herrings doesn’t do anything to further the intended discussion. If you have a topical rebuttal, please share; otherwise, save your digression for your own letter to the editor or guest column.

Part of the problem is that the online forum lacks the filtration system offered by traditional responses to an editorial piece. Anyone with a computer is free to write a diatribe, no matter how relevant or offensive. While I hold freedom of speech to a very high degree and encourage online or person-to-person commentary on editorial pieces, I also value accountability. You know my name, my stance, and my contact information. Contrarily, my editorials or columns are subjected to personal attacks or diatribes left my anonymous posters.

I welcome the tit-for-tat nature of being an editorial writer. I love the adversarial nature of the opinions section. But come on, have the fortitude to stand behind your opinions and arguments. We are part of a forum of ideas and debates. Be willing to take responsibility and ownership of your ideas and words, or go whine somewhere else. Posting anonymously just allows users to spew vitriol without any accountability. If you feel moved enough to respond to an editorial or column, why aren’t you willing to release your name? They are your thoughts, your opinions, and your arguments - take credit for them. If you’re worried someone might think less of you based on what you wrote, either you should decide whether the response is appropriate, or you should stopping worrying about people disagreeing with you.

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