Texas Opinion Journalism – A Virtual Conversation
On September 17, 2016, four award-winning Texas journalists participated in a keynote presentation at the annual Headliners Foundation Mike Quinn Awards Luncheon at the Headliners Club. Preceding that live presentation event, the journalists engaged in a virtual conversation by e-mail, which was moderated by Headliners Foundation vice chair John Lumpkin that focused on similar questions asked at the luncheon.
The Virtual Conversation:
Lumpkin (to all): Each of you began your journalism careers in what we used to call “straight news” – not editorial writing or other commentary. How did that prepare you for what you are doing now?
In truth, I started out in commentary – I placed third in the state for editorial writing in high school. Life really is one big circle. But professionally, yes, I was a metro reporter and then an assistant editor on a variety of desks, including the legislative desk and the metro desk, before moving to the editorial pages. The news side is where you hone the skills to interview, to question and a baseline understanding of the community and politics. I couldn’t do my job without that knowledge. Everyone has an opinion, but what differentiates what we do is the ability to suss out the truth to back up our positions and the contacts to find out what is going on behind the headlines. Having been at the Statesman for 16 years also allows me to provide institutional context that a newer writer might lack.
I’m not sure it’s possible to be an effective opinion writer without a solid background in straight news reporting. Reporting – especially beat work like crime, government and justice – gives you a working knowledge of how the systems integral to daily life actually operate, both in theory and in (sometimes hideous) reality. It also provides the tools an opinion writer needs for building a persuasive case: By knowing how to report, you know how to assemble your supporting evidence.
It provided the necessary background to evaluate news and what’s important. In my case, that was more than a decade in sports and then another decade on our city desk. Both had value to what I’m doing now, for context especially.
There’s no way I could have written a metro column without a strong foundation in reporting. I speak to a lot of student groups and they often say they want to write opinion, but they don’t have much interest in news. To me, opinions are worthless if they’re not backed up by facts and research. Yes, columnists are expected to entertain and be strong writers, but there’s lot of pressure to say something fresh, unexpected, to persuade and maybe even change minds. You can’t do this effectively if you don’t have the facts or the wherewithal to dig out powerful details and anecdotes that give power to your points.
Lumpkin (to all): Is the line between straight news and commentary blurring for legacy media, as many think it has in cable television, the blogosphere and digital publications like Salon and National Review Online? How do we deal with that?
Yes and no. I think that consumer appetites have changed a lot. When we had two and three newspaper towns, readers would select the paper with the editorial point of view that they approve of. Now that we’re pretty much down to one legacy paper per market and readers have much higher accessibility to national commentary and opinions from other sources, it does change what we do. Most readers have the ability to separate the difference between news and commentary, though I think they care less about the distinction that journalists do. I also don’t believe readers make as much distinction between the sub-categories of commentary as we do – blogs, columns, editorials, op-eds. These are all styles of commentary. Don’t get me wrong, there are expectations that come with the brand – accuracy, thoroughness, consistency. There is a place for both – but if you are consuming it through your social media feed, it comes without the helpful road signs of being on the same page and under the masthead. So we have to find other ways to let people know that we’re using our own voice and not simply reporting the news. In that sense legacy media companies online and in print have an advantage. Cable news has fewer road markers, every interview looks just like the next and outlets like FoxNews and MSNBC have made no bones about their point of view.
Yikes, is it ever. Part of the solution is as simple as labeling: the DMN uses tags including as “opinion,” and “commentary” to identify opinion for readers. But it’s also increasingly incumbent on news consumers to be smart in ways that haven’t historically been necessary: Not only in distinguishing information from opinion, but in weighing the sources of that information, defining “objectivity” (according to a lot of my mail, the test of “objectivity” lies in whether it matches their point of view), and having the ability to disentangle science, religion, and politics. I don’t want throw a live grenade into the middle of the room by saying there’s an awful lot at stake in the ability of Americans to distinguish fact from belief – but, sorry about that, I just pulled the pin.
Yes, without question. This has accelerated over the last few years, as legacy media have lost influence and the companies that own them have tried to maintain a foothold. I’m not sure that we deal with that, so much as we ask ourselves each day if what we’re writing is what people want to read, whether digitally or in print. This is not a simple answer, and it should vary from writer to writer.
Yes, the line is blurred. And I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing as long as we make it clear to the reader what they’re reading. This is best done by labeling “commentary” or “opinion” as such. I can’t tell you how many readers have written or called me through the years because they were confused about what my opinion column is doing on a news page. I try to explain to them the difference between a reported column and an editorial, but it’s still confusing to many people. That said, I think our culture is becoming more accepting and even preferential toward perspective journalism, whether it includes the ‘I’ pronoun or not. And I think in some ways, this approach is more honest than the myth of objectivity. Objectivity is a worthy goal, but it’s impossible for humans. And as long as journalists put themselves out as the high priests of neutrality, without doing any soul-searching on our own biases and world views, we’ll continue to lose respect of readers. Maybe that’s getting off point a bit. Bottom line is that everyone sees the world through a prism, even just-the-facts-ma’am AP reporters. This is why diversity is so important in news rooms. I think perspective journalism, as long as it’s transparently presented or labeled as such, is a more comprehensive way of presenting the news that actually can prove to be more informative and interesting than the straight approach.
Lumpkin: Lisa, one of your winning entries for the Pulitzer Prize is a story that could have been the work of a metro reporter instead of a columnist – a civil damage suit by a sheriff’s deputy against the mother of a delusional man killed in a confrontation with the deputy. Your opinion, if that is what we can call it, isn’t until deep in the narrative. Tell us how you are bridging so-called objective reporting with your convictions.
It’s interesting you ask about that column. Most of the columns I write get limited editing and appear basically as I wrote them. On that one, I was frustrated with the length and so I went to our managing editor Vernon Loeb for advice. He took issue with the fact that I’d written it as a reporter, not as a columnist. I was so caught up in the narrative, which hadn’t been reported, and I wanted to break that news, if you will, on what went down during the shooting. But Vernon reminded me that as a columnist, I’ve got to let the reader know my perspective or opinion early. Still, this lawyer had opened his discovery to me and there was valuable original material — 911 call, police reports, timelines — that give the family’s story credibility and help the reader connect and care about the family. Without that connection, the reader won’t fully feel the outrage of the officer’s lawsuit. I rewrote it and Vernon approved. I think it represents the challenges of a reported column — getting the facts in and covering the bases of fairness, such as giving the other side space to explain. It’s a delicate dance, weaving that together with opinion and in this case, my own indignation. I try to be preachy in columns, although it happens occasionally. I try not to hit the reader over the head with my opinion. I try to show, show, and limit the telling. In this piece, you may not notice, but there were subtle ways early on, starting in the eighth graf, that I let the reader know how I felt. Such as the phrase, “and then it got worse.” And then, when I wrote that the officer who was supposed to protect them served them instead with a lawsuit. This lets the reader know where I’m headed, and builds up to the soap box lines at the end.
Lumpkin: Jacquielynn, you donned a hijab, the traditional scarf for Muslim women in public, to write a first-person column that perhaps had a counter-intuitive angle to non-Muslims that the women considered the attire “liberating,” but you felt discomfort by bystanders’ behavior. How does first-person experience fit into opinion journalism?
In reporting that column, I made two related observations: One was that the attitudes some of us ascribe to traditional Muslim dress may not be accurate. These were women who are making a personal choice to make a particular observance, and they were remarkably articulate about their reasons for doing so. To a surprising degree, they believe they are making a free choice in an open society, and I understood this more fully by wearing the hijab myself. To be a traditionally dressed Muslim woman in U.S. society right now does not allow you to “hide.” For many women, it’s an expression of commitment that risks displays of hostility, that abandons the protection of anonymity, and may invite complete strangers to make uninformed assumptions about what they believe and how they live. That combination – of interview and first-person experience – can give the writer a much deeper sense of why people behave and believe as they do.
Lumpkin (to Tara): The Statesman no longer makes political endorsements or publishes in its print editions a wide range of national political commentators. The reduction in print content is part of the larger challenges of traditional media and was not met with universal subscriber acclaim – understandable. But you said resources should be used for more local voices and a stronger emphasis on digital would be made. How is that working out?
It’s been a learning process. A fair number of our longtime print subscribers are saddened and upset about the changes. It was a pretty heart-breaking few weeks of taking calls from readers after we made the changes. We’ve switched somethings around and have been including some of the syndicated columnists in the print edition, just not in the volume readers are accustomed to and we include a larger selection online most weeks. We also have the ability to bring back a larger print section in special cases, like with the Dallas shootings.
We’ve also started a weekly newsletter that helps folks navigate to the columnists they missed and that’s gone really well. The place where we’ve been hurt the most is with those readers who read us exclusively in print – about 20 percent of our print readership, and those who read us in the outlying areas outside of Austin proper. They have no intention of reading us digitally and the fact that they have more commentary now about Austin-area politics, businesses and schools doesn’t feel like much of a bargain to them. But our online readers are getting more high-quality, more timely commentary than ever before. The numbers suggest they like what they see.
We’re currently gearing up for the local election season and while we will not be doing traditional endorsements, we’re hopeful that the issue-based commentary we do will reassure folks that we have not abandoned the community.
Lumpkin (to Mike): You accepted the invitation to become the “right-wing” voice among Dallas Morning News columnists – according to you – to help you and Jacquielynn “pay the mortgage.” What other motivation is there?
I’ll admit that I share some of the complaints from readers who believe our general tone of coverage is sliding (has slid?) to the left politically, and that certainly would include our set of Metro columnists. Writing a Metro column never was a goal of mine, but if the belief — as our editor, Mike Wilson, put it — was that a more conservative voice could give some of these readers what they want, sure, why not? It wasn’t hard to be more conservative than our columnists, and it was a chance to say things that had been limited to our dearly departed online Opinion blog.
Lumpkin: What role does “biography” – i.e., your personal history – have in your perspective and your work?
It’s essential because it frames and offers context to just about everything a person might write. My life experience, for instance, includes where I grew up, how my parents raised me, what values I gained — or failed to gain, as the case may be — where we lived, all of that. Our resumes won’t be the same; our opinions that come out of those resumes won’t be, either.
And all that is before we get into the professional and adult/family experiences, which also affect how a writer views a subject and interprets what he or she sees. For me, that means about years covering high school sports, then a decade in our newspaper’s terrific sports department and then another decade on our city desk. Everything along the way leaves a mental mark that is a potential reference point to something I might write today. Another writer’s mental marks will be substantially different, and that’s the way it should be.
Tara Trower Doolittle, Viewpoints Editor, Austin American-Statesman
Lisa Falkenberg, columnist, Houston Chronicle, 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, and 2015 Green Award winner, Star Opinion Writer of the Year
Jacquielynn Floyd, columnist, The Dallas Morning News
Mike Hashimoto, blogger/columnist, The Dallas Morning News