Drawing the line with opinions

Publishing inaccuracies in opinion pages is a big deal. Readers’ trust is at stake.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says a journalist’s first duty is to seek truth and report it. What about editorialists? They write opinions based on personal knowledge and the way they decipher information.

But shouldn’t those opinions be based on facts? Where is the line between publishing an editorialist’s opinion and printing the truth? How do you decide what is opinion and what is just plain wrong? The Daily has had a spat of inaccuracies in its news and opinions pages. Correcting errors in the news section is typically easy. You can refer to a reporter’s notes or research a claim of inaccuracy. The errors in the opinion page have not been as easy to correct. And readers have noticed.

A good example is John Hoff’s Sept. 15 opinion piece “University’s X.500 e-mail, a monument to idiocy.” The piece described Hoff’s frustrations with the University e-mail system and its lack of components, specifically a sent folder. I received many letters from readers saying the University’s e-mail does have a sent folder. Although you have to install it, it is there, and many readers took Hoff’s statement as a factual error. But Hoff argues it is accurate to say the University’s e-mail system does not have a sent folder. Since you have to create the folder, it does not actually exist until you do so. He compares this to saying someone’s view on abortion is wrong.

“It’s a question of, ‘Is it alive?’ and, ‘Does it count if it’s not alive?’ ” Hoff said. “I say it’s not alive, and it doesn’t count if it’s not alive. The other side clutches their fetal potential sent file to their chest and says, ‘It exists! It is real even if it has no words or thoughts inside of it yet!’ “

Editorial and Opinions Editor Karl Noyes said it’s difficult to say when someone’s opinion is inaccurate. Saying the sent folder does not exist is valid because you have to install it, and many people haven’t done that, he said. To those people, the folder does not exist. Instead of getting too technical with the facts, opinions are often dumbed down for readers, Noyes said.

“How technical can you get before it’s actually the truest fact?” Noyes said. “(Hoff’s column) was taking a really technical issue that people in IT know how to talk about, but the rest of the University doesn’t know how to talk about.”

Editor in Chief Britt Johnsen said she is aware of the problem. The senior editorial board members will now help with fact-checking and editing, she said.

“Asking more questions is something we’re going to do in the editorial pages,” she said. “I think it’s just one way to make sure we have all the questions answered and all the angles looked at.”

Expressing opinion is fine. If you say abortion is right or wrong, that is an opinion. But I think when you say a sent folder doesn’t exist, that means you can’t have access to the file – it’s just not there. But you can have access to it. Regardless of if you have it installed or not, it is available to you. And that is fact, not opinion. Saying the University e-mail system does not have a sent folder is factually wrong. And although this statement was part of Hoff’s opinion on the e-mail system, he cannot argue with reality. And you can’t dumb down the facts. The Daily will work harder to verify facts and publish truth so readers can continue to trust their newspaper. Any questions? Let me know.

Molly Moker is the readers’ representative and welcomes comments at [email protected]