Beware of “opinion” writers

By George Smith

To an editor, publisher, columnist or investigative reporter, personal insults or fits of screaming heebie-jeebies by members of the public over something written cannot be taken to heart.

Those brave souls of print and electronic media have a job, an important job, to do. Period.

In more than 50 years of writing, typing and computering editorials, analyses and commentary on everything from the price of silver and how and why it effects everyday citizens to city council and county court faux pas, from instances of fraud or pure political bedevilment by elected officials to uncloaking crooked law enforcement officers, and from outing pot smokers and alcoholics in newspapers’ pressroom to teachers faking standardized test scores … the stories and follow-up opinion pieces must be written.

For many opinion writers, it’s a simple task to judge the public reaction of articles before they are written; after a time in the gossip-caldron around the coffee machine or café table, the majority of folks (even those who did not read the article) to form a “fir” or “agin” opinion.

There have been times when my fingers paused before pounding out a statement of opinion that I knew would not sit well with some friends, co-workers or family members. That poignant pause did not last long; I seemed to always “err” on being true to myself, rather than bow down to outside forces that hovered about.

I have always bound myself to the personal rule that nothing I write is intended to evoke support or choruses of Huzzah! from anyone, from readers to company executives; my opinions were my own and aimed at doing nothing but provide, hopefully, an environment of thought for someone…for anyone. And on the opposite side of the commentary spectrum, I have never written an article with the sole intent of upsetting any person or group, but did believe in advance that something I wrote would be upsetting to someone.

As an editor and/or publisher in myriad cities in four states, I have been a member of various civic clubs. Rotary, for the most part, was my preferred club because in many chapters the local movers-and-shakers are members; being a part of that group is a good way to keep abreast of any errant changes in a community’s business pulse.

Before I joined any Rotary Club, I made it clear that Rotary’s Four-Way Test created a problem for a member who peddled news and opinion for a living. The Four-Way Test, repeated at most clubs at every meeting, is:

  • Is it the TRUTH?
  • Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  • Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

I had no problem with Nos. 1 and 2, but Nos. 3 and 4 sometimes got a little dicey for a newshound. For example, writing a story about a fellow Rotarian who is charged with embezzlement probably wouldn’t pass the “smell” test for the last two questions.

If what I wrote/write is TRUE and FAIR (meaning the facts are right and all known sides of an issue are given), that had to be a good enough standard of excellence for any published works, printed or electronic.

I can think of several hundred times when reporting on a story and a personal commentary let to unrelenting verbal abuse, even picketing and boycotting of the paper. On two occasions, I was physically assaulted because of an opinion column or an editorial.

Writing about unpleasant occurrences that one knows is going to cause heartache and emotional problems should never be taken lightly. Every effort must be taken to give both sides of any controversial news story (and, sometimes, there is only one side and at other times, multiple sides) and give equal treatment when appropriate.

Some readers do not see the difference in a news story and an opinion column or editorial; that is where a lot of misperception and anger enter into the situation.

A news story should be fair and balanced (not the Fox News “fair and balanced” type of presentation or the Al Sharpton one-issue programs) with information given to views/readers to allow them to dissect it and make up their own mind about relevance.

Opinion programming or stories are simply opinions tossed up in the air like wheat, often filled with pabulum-like fillers and buzzwords to give a one-sided perspective to an issue.

But stop and think: There’s nothing wrong with that, really. You have opinions, as do I and so does everyone else. Opinions are cheap to come by; many people form them after just overhearing a conversation or by reading a headline or hearing a one-sentence screed on talk radio or TV.

In the world of reputable opinion writers, opinions are the fruits of often-intensive research and examination and are intended to enlighten, inform, entertain and educate the audience.

Of course, there are those writers who simply want you to follow their ideology as presented without thought or research. They are the charlatans of the opinion world and are as deadly intellectually to their “flock” as are many evangelistic preachers who spend more time talking about money as they do about God.

Good writers? Bad writers? They are out there in droves. The hard part is figuring out which is which. But you can use the first two steps of Rotary’s Four-Way Test as a good starting point.

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