Getting the facts straight in opinions

While an opinions writer is entitled to his or her opinion, it still must be based in fact.

Apparently, the Secret Service is “cracking down” on artists who criticize President George W. Bush, closing down shows when possible for no cause other than the fact that Bush doesn’t like their work. Oh, and public school teachers often sidestep evolution because they are afraid of a backlash by conservative parents. Fascinating stuff. Where did I get this choice information? The Minnesota Daily opinions page. And where did these journalists get their information? The answer, unfortunately, isn’t always from facts.

Throughout the year, I’ve gotten dozens of letters to the editor about “misleading” columnists who give “incomplete” explanations of events and then draw faulty conclusions based on those descriptions. Often, it’s people who just don’t agree with the columnists. But in several cases, readers have had legitimate concerns. Take, for example, Karl Noyes’ column, “Bush’s art police coming to a venue near you.”

While well-written, Noyes’ column failed to present all the information about the examples he used. He characterized a gun in one art piece as “lurking in the background,” when it was clearly pointed at Bush’s head; he didn’t tell readers each investigation by the Secret Service came after multiple people complained to authorities about the art piece’s threatening nature, and he didn’t make it clear the Secret Service did not shut down any of the performances or suppress any artwork.

While Noyes said he wanted readers to get the idea of the “chilling effect” of these investigations and thought readers would know the Secret Service did not shut down shows, his failure to fully explain what happened taints his column and disserves readers. After consideration, Noyes recognized his failure in fact weakened his argument.

“I should have put the context in there,” he said. “Now, it appears I’m hiding things.”

But Noyes is not alone in getting carried away with his opinion. The same trap has ensnared other Daily writers, as have other opinion-writing blunders such as making sweeping generalizations, drawing conclusions based on assumptions, not facts, and ignoring significant gaps in the argument the columnist is trying to make. While these are all different scenarios, they can all lead to misleading and inaccurate writing. That’s where Editorials & Opinions Editor Tim Burnett should come in – but apparently not in Noyes’ case.

“For an editorial writer with 3 1/2 of experience (like Noyes) I usually don’t worry about accuracy,” Burnett said. “There’s a lower standard. I check for taste, not for facts.”

With newer columnists and guest columnists, Burnett said, he does “basic fact-checking” based on what he knows about the issue (a prerequisite for his job is to avidly follow the news). While he is devoted to catching unsubstantiated or misleading statements, he said, he doesn’t have time to be “perfectly thorough.” All columns also go through editing by copy desk, but opinions pieces are trickier for copy editors, because it is hard to know whether a writer has facts to back up the argument. That’s why Burnett’s role is so crucial.

“Certainly, (the columnist) is entitled to his opinion, but what is it based on?” said Art Coulson, St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial page editor. He said editing columnists is more of an interactive process. “I might just challenge things” to see if columnists can back up opinions, he said. Even though Coulson has worked with most Pioneer Press writers for some time, each piece is still checked for accuracy. Columns are “held to the same standard” as anything else in the paper, and “if they’re provably true or false statements, we’ll do some research on whether things are accurate,” he said.

While Burnett said such a process would be too time consuming, the accuracy of what the Daily prints must come first. As a reader noted, “If even one piece such as Noyes’ comes out with such inaccuracies as to what actually happened, then how do we know when to trust articles and when not to?”

In fairness, Coulson has more help in editing, and Burnett and Editor in Chief Jake Weyer are working to mitigate the problem by hiring an assistant editorial page editor. But if this has been a problem all year, it should have been addressed in September – not after several botched columns and multiple reader complaints.

Each piece of writing the Daily prints should have already been read and thoroughly checked; mistakes, while sometimes inevitable, cannot be standard practice for this newspaper. If a writer has repeated problems providing facts for a column, as Coulson said, “They don’t last long in this business.” Now, they won’t last long at the Daily, either: Weyer recently changed the Daily’s corrections policy so that any writer with two corrections in the same semester will be officially written up and any error after that could warrant termination.

If the Daily truly strives for accuracy and fairness, it must hold all its writers – opinion, news and otherwise – to the same standards, no matter what it takes. This new policy, hopefully, is an indication the Daily is serious about ensuring the problems of this year’s Editorials and Opinions pages are never repeated.

Libby George is the readers’ representative. She welcomes comments at [email protected]