When Horace Greeley founded the New-York Tribune in 1841, he separated news reporting from opinion writing, giving opinion its own page — the last one in the newspaper. Greeley's innovation was an attempt to de-fake the news because prior to his news segregation, papers were virtually all opinion pieces financed by political parties and full of falsehoods, innuendo and self-interested rants.
Greeley dedicated most of the pages of his paper to what he considered unbiased news, which left only a few pages for analysis. Opinion writing developed as a practice distinctive from straight reporting, which made opinion writers a minority among journalists.
Because history has taught us that separate can't ever be equal — at least not in the American mind — relegating opinion journalism to a distinct section left people to surmise that the journalists who wrote in those back pages were inferior, less than.
One fellowship program at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism rejected me because the committee didn't believe I, as an opinion writer, would be able to handle a reporting assignment. (Where is Lori Loughlin when you need her?)
In my freelance work, when I've inquired whether editors would publish commentary, they've replied that they only publish factual pieces — as if commentary is counterfactual.
Commentary is the opposite of counterfactual, of course. Columns, editorials and op-eds are fact-based arguments presented to readers to challenge modes of thinking, at least in newspapers that vet them.
But readers might accept that opinion is automatically less reliable than other news because we cordon off opinions and practically post warning signs, segregating columnists even further.
Back in 2012, then-ombudsman of The Washington Post Patrick Pexton worried about the paper's practice of occasionally publishing opinion columns on the front page. He wanted them back where they belonged — in the nether pages of Section A. Pexton thought that if any opinion column pulled a journalistic Rosa Parks and parked itself in the front, it required an even stronger, additional label that it was "analysis" and not pure reporting. Readers needed to know that a column didn't really belong where it ended up.
There's a growing consensus that, when it comes to news and opinion, you gotta keep 'em separated. NewsGuard, a new app and browser extension, rates news sites on their trustworthiness. Twelve and a half points (out of 100) of a site's NewsGuard rating depends on how responsibly the media outlet labels or divides opinion pieces from reporting.
NewsGuard's service is noble, needed and really easy to install; but it doesn't address the reality that people believe labels and separations land on things or people because they're risky. There's an implied toxicity to opinion journalism when there shouldn't be.
Opinion pages get a bad rap because we lack an adequate word for comparison. When we differentiate "opinion vs. reporting," we imply that a column can't be reported, yet many are and they're fact-checked by editors. When we say "opinion vs. news," we hint that the opinion piece isn't newsworthy. When we use phrases like "straight news," readers may see opinion writers as crooked.
But we're not. Columnists are more honest, in a way, than a regular beat reporter because we wear our subjectivity on our sleeves. Proclamations by individuals, editors or news outlets that they operate without any bias are a charade. There's a bias just in selecting which stories will run in a newspaper, no matter how objective the reporting within it claims to be. So, the content on the front page of a newspaper isn't perfectly clear-eyed, even when it's accurate.
We talk about people's "news diets" to describe their media consumption. To make the food metaphor even more indelicate, I suggest we think about opinion writing this way: Straight news is eating, and opinion journalism is digesting. The front end may be more enjoyable, but the back end is essential. In fact, the back enables more of the front, since it provides context, illumination and grounds to reject what can poison us — things like "alternative facts."
While I don't think there's that much risk in accidentally swallowing an opinion piece, I don't have a problem with being separate and labeled, as long as I'm considered equal. Editorial pages are required reading. You can trust these pages.