Editorials are supposed to be ‘unfair’

The least understood part of the newspaper is the editorial column. Usually unsigned, appearing in the same place every day, around cartoons and letters to the editor, editorials generate both confusion and anger in readers. Although I can’t — and shouldn’t — make editorials more palatable, I can explain the purpose and structure of the editorial process and perhaps clear up some reader misconceptions.
Chris Trejbal, a graduate student in philosophy, is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He is also a member of the five-person editorial board, whose names appear at the top of the editorial column each day. The goal of the editorial, Trejbal said, is to interpret news facts in a way that presents a point of view. “It is often not clear what the implications of a set of facts are,” he said. “We offer a line of reasoning to convince people, or at least get them to think about an issue in a new way.”
Readers are used to thinking about a newspaper as an objective purveyor of the news of the day. Although the debate over newspaper objectivity is one that I’m not going to address, most journalism schools and instructors teach that news should not reflect a point of view. Some publications are understood by their readers to be more “liberal” or “conservative” than others. But, in theory at least, people expect newspapers to be objective, and newspapers try to deliver.
The editorial and opinions pages are another story.
Yes, Trejbal insisted, editorials are unfair. That’s their nature. Because the editorial space is only eight and a half column inches, there isn’t room to present all sides of an issue. And editorial content is set apart on its own pages precisely because it does not adhere to traditional objectivity tenets supported in the rest of the paper.
The editorial board was picked at the beginning of the academic year, and Trejbal worked hard to achieve a balance of “liberal,” “conservative” and “moderate” voices. The board meets twice a week. Controversial news topics are introduced for discussion and debated by the board members. The majority rules on how a topic will be treated. For example, Monday’s editorial topic, which supported medical testing on animals, was determined by a majority, three or more votes of the board. The fairness, Trejbal says, takes place at the board meetings, where topics are debated.
So editorials are usually biased. They use facts to support one particular point of view on a controversial news topic. But Trejbal takes allegations that the facts used in the editorial are incorrect very seriously. So far, he says false or incorrect facts have appeared only once or twice in the past year. When that happens, he runs a correction.
The board is, in principle and on paper, the editorial voice of the Daily. But, Trejbal said, in practice the board speaks for itself. Other editors may write guest editorials. In fact, Nick Doty, editor in chief, writes an occasional editorial.
Although other Daily editors are welcome at editorial board meetings, they do not often attend.
So why aren’t the editorials signed? Trejbal bristled at the suggestion that this means the board is afraid to own up to its opinions. The editorial is the opinion of a group of individuals, not just one, though it is up to one member to write the editorial. The signed editorial cartoons, letters to the editor and opinions pieces are the opinions of their signers; the editorial is the opinion of the board. “The best editorials,” Trejbal said, “are the ones that tackle a controversial issue and generate dialogue in the Daily.”
The best way to refute an editorial, then, is not to allege that it’s unfair, biased and doesn’t present all sides of an issue. This is what it’s supposed to be. Those who disagree with an editorial’s position can write a reasoned and thoughtful assessment of the other side of the debate. One excellent example of this kind of letter appeared in Thursday’s Daily. Titled “Animal rights activists can also appeal to reason,” it was written by J.D. Walker of the Digital Media Center.
Walker took the time to think about Monday’s editorial and how he could best argue against it. The letter is a carefully constructed piece that provides thought-provoking arguments supporting both animal rights and the activists who work to defend them. He does not claim that the Daily’s editorial is unfair; he simply sets out his assertions as to why he believes the opinion advanced in the editorial is wrong. This approach is far more powerful than just attacking the editorialist as biased.
Although I’m not trying to tell readers what kind of letters they should write in response to an editorial, I am suggesting that cries of unfairness and bias miss the point. Understanding the purpose and goal of the editorial column is the first step in making an argument against it. And knowing that one of the goals of the editorial is to be provocative might encourage readers to form their opposing opinions in a similar fashion. The information that comes out of this process can be a valuable addition to public debate on issues of community importance.

Genelle Belmas’ column runs every other Friday. She welcomes comments by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 612-627-4070 x3282.