A family-friendly version of a much more vulgar saying would go something like this – “Opinions are like kidneys, everybody’s got at least one.”
This is why it was particularly shocking to see that Rhode Island’s largest newspaper will no longer run editorial pieces – perhaps indefinitely.
In the farewell column, Providence Journal executive editor Alan Rosenberg laid out what he deemed in his opinion to be an impossible situation – that editorials have always been a necessary staple of newspapers, but that they simultaneously erode public trust in the newspapers that run them due to the necessity of choosing sides on issues that will inevitably alienate some and vindicate others.
Their focus, at least for now, will be on running more commentary from public officials and letters from members of the public – letting their reporters focus on covering their communities through fact checking and making inquiries, without picking sides. On its surface, that seems to be a reasonable, even noble endeavor.
However, we would posit that during a time when the validity of the free press is under attack like never before – specifically from the institutions themselves that have long been kept in check by the Fourth Estate – this is a heartbreaking concession. It is a decision that seems to elevate the opinions of critics and less informed members of the public above the opinions of reporters, who put in the difficult work of parsing out complex situations through interviews, fact checking and research in order to put forth a rational assessment of which side has presented a more accurate version of reality.
Like kidneys filter out the toxins our bodies ingest and produce and safely dispose of them, quality editorial writing filters out toxic misinformation and calculated lies served up by those with ulterior agendas and those who wish to hide crucial pieces of truth from the public. A quality editorial is at least 75 percent reliant on facts, and 25 percent reliant on opinion – and the former supports the legitimacy of the latter.
Quality editorials aren’t written cluelessly by “the newspaper” to bolster an opinion that a lone publisher already holds. They are an amalgamation of analysis, usually conducted by many people over the course of weeks or longer, that combines traditional objective reporting with the basic acknowledgement that one opinion may simply be “more right” than another opinion. This assessment is not based on biases or what political party you align with, but on facts. Sometimes, a quality editorial can tear down both of the prevailing opinions, opting instead to search for a third, better opinion.
Do newspapers sometimes publish shoddy editorials worthy of critiquing? Absolutely. But citizens often write shoddy letters full of bogus information that lack crucial context. Public officials will always present narratives that paint them in the best light, foregoing objective analysis and opposing points of view. A quality editorial will never be equitable to either of these alternatives.
Although the old adage regarding opinions remains especially true in today’s hyper-politicized, ultra-polarized, social-media-crazy society – we believe it is more important than ever in this age of “fake news” and covert misinformation campaigns to recognize the fact that not all opinions are equal, and not all opinions are inherently valid. Some opinions are based in hard facts and research, while others are based on nothing more than outright lies and hidden agendas. Identifying sound opinions from faulty opinions is the proper function of a newspaper editorial.
As for the Journal’s decision, we can’t help but wonder if economic pressures have forced this move. Newspapers are not in a position where they can afford to lose subscribers – and unfortunately, many members of the public would rather turn their backs on reality and label an entire newspaper "fake news" than face the possibility that their opinion was incorrect. The grim prospects of this should be of great concern those who value the truth above all.