Not all opinions deserve to be published

If newsrooms won’t fact-check commentaries, they shouldn’t be put to the public

(PDPics/Pixabay)

Yes, it’s ironic to opine on opinions.

For months, I’ve become increasingly salty as more and more patently false information gets published under the guise of “opinion” in otherwise credible news sources. I’m not talking about Fox News — that’s propaganda. I’m talking about reputable local and national news sources. It’s a disturbing trend, and there’s no excuse.

This is a particular conundrum as a columnist myself. I’m also aware many of my colleagues worry about questioning weaknesses in journalism at a time of such extreme anti-media sentiments. Alas, I’m of the opinion that trust is earned in open dialogue, so here goes.

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In an age of heightened disinformation and political polarization, I strongly believe it’s time for newsrooms to accept full responsibility for their commentators. This includes applying basic journalistic standards such as essential fact-checking, citing or linking reputable sources and providing reasonable scope in making the argument. After all, if you have to fabricate or omit details to justify your argument, how worthy is your opinion to begin with?

I wish I could say this was already the standard. It’s clearly not. It’s all too easy to see repeated editorial blunders in which excessive liberties with facts are taken. It happened again last week, as many hyperpartisan commentators took to suggesting Colorado’s voter laws are akin to Georgia’s. They are not, and this was easily disproved by many news outlets, including Newsline.

But it isn’t only national news — it’s right here in Colorado.

Recently I’ve begun noting commentaries with a flagrant disregard for the truth. Three of the worst offenders thus far include a commentary published in Colorado Politics, which regarded climate change as a “smokescreen” regarding wildfires, another in The Gazette with a pervasive conspiratorial wink to COVID-19 and racism as political hoaxes, and a third in the Denver Post that contained multiple unsourced statistics on abortion, which I’ve yet to corroborate. Incidentally, all three columnists continue to appear regularly.

These are but a few examples that, in addition to causing harm by propagating disinformation, create poor standards for commentary and undermine reasonable arguments. For example, the piece negating the role of climate change could have simply made an argument for better forest management — a truly necessary conversation — without anti-science statements. The misleading anti-abortion piece could have just as easily cited reputable sources or addressed factors that lead to late term abortions in the first place. The conspiracy column, however, should never have been published as it makes no credible argument.

This is where many of my colleagues will rightfully argue that opinion writers and newsrooms are separate entities — a standard practice which Newsline also adheres to. For this reason, they argue, opinion pages should not reflect on the integrity of the newsroom.

After much reflection, I disagree. If newsrooms aren’t willing to accept responsibility for maintaining the factual accuracy and anti-discrimination practices for their commentators, why should the public trust that their news reporting criteria is substantially different?

Sticking with today’s theme, I have a factual basis for this opinion. Polls and research show that consumers exhibit difficulties in separating opinions from news reports, and they struggle to identify credible information at large. Although outlets might label pieces as “commentary” to distinguish them from the work of reporters, readers often fail to appreciate the distinction, giving similar weight to both. This might be as the articles often share a publishing entity or weblink — e.g. The New York Times or Denver Post — so it’s not entirely unreasonable for subscribers to expect a certain level of quality.

This is where, I believe, if newsrooms can’t — or won’t — make an effort to improve professional standards of commentaries, then such commentaries shouldn’t be published or aired at all. If it’s a matter of resources, newsrooms should reduce the number of commentaries accepted to accommodate elementary fact-checking. Columnists should also be held accountable if they are found to repeatedly disregard the facts. And, if pieces are consistently presented to the public in poor standards, it should absolutely impact the reputability of the news source as a whole.

Pushing one step further, it’s not only anti-science opinions that concern me. Commentary is often littered with blatantly sexist, racist or other discriminatory sentiments. One such example was when opinion writer Joseph Epstein authored a lengthy diatribe attacking First Lady Jill Biden for using her earned title of “Doctor.” Within hours of the release, the author’s former employer issued a statement against the column’s sexism, noting Epstein hadn’t worked for them since 2003.

So what entity gave a nationwide platform to such drivel? The Wall Street Journal — a news source with millions of readers. And that’s the rub. It’s not only that it was written, it’s that it was permitted to be published at all. Whether for clicks, attention or general misogyny, it’s unacceptable. The First Amendment provides us the freedom to hold bigoted beliefs. It does not grant us the right to a bully pulpit to espouse them.

Many news outlets have done well to adjust to increasing mistruths and polarization, including fact-checking tools such as The Washington Post’s “Pinocchio” system. But opinion pages — and the often unclear qualifications of those who write them — can remain murky, and updates or retractions are not always issued when needed. For example, all the articles mentioned above remain unedited as of this writing.

It’s for these reasons and more that I strongly believe newsrooms must be more firm on reining in commentators to elementary journalistic standards. Disinformation tactics will continue to become normalized if we aren’t careful, and that alone is reason enough to act. But if nothing else, why settle for mediocre opinions?

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