Why a newspaper’s opinion page matters

The only time my friends actually read the paper is when the Collegian does something controversial.

And that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday, when immediately after getting back to my apartment to grab some quick dinner before coming into the office, I was accosted by two of my roommates about something one of our columnists wrote about military discounts.

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“Why would you publish this?” One of them asked me while I was digging into my gourmet $0.50 dinner of ramen noodles and tuna. “Don’t you think this makes the Collegian look bad?”

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question. During my three years at the Collegian, we’ve published a variety of unpopular pieces on our opinion page, from a column calling basically everyone godless heathens, to an incendiary look at Greek, life to a piece about “screwing racism (literally).”

And every single time, people ask the same question, regardless of the content in question: “Why would you publish this?”

My answer is simple: We publish it because it’s called the opinion page. And in my opinion (no pun intended), an opinion page is absolutely worthless if it doesn’t give space to unpopular opinions alongside the more conventional ones.

Was I slightly offended that someone was questioning whether or not veterans should get tiny 10 percent discounts at private businesses? I honestly was, but by the same token, I fully support her right to say it.

Looking online, I firmly believe that she started a genuine discussion, and forced some people to actually justify something they have never questioned before.

If that’s not a perfect example of the function an opinion page should have, then I don’t know what is.

One of the biggest distinctions I think a lot of media consumers lack is that there is a clear difference between an actual news article and an opinion piece. While expecting unbiased reporting from a news article should be a given, the function of a column is the exact opposite.

It’s always disheartening when I see people’s comments online about how our columns are “bad journalism” or “totally biased reporting,” because neither of these things are expectations whatsoever when it comes to a column.

What I do expect from our opinion page is that our columns are well-researched, have good argumentation, be factually accurate and have a strong variety of voices from different facets of our community. I don’t think we should ever reject an opinion piece because of its subject matter, but that we should have an expectation where the more potentially controversial the subject, the more we expect in terms of argumentation and research.

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Yes — we have held columns because of these two factors, but our policy is to always allow the writer to rewrite the piece until it is up to our standards. And sometimes we have published columns that did not meet our quality control standards for argumentation, and that’s where we’ve gotten in trouble.

In my mind, we should never shy away from being controversial simply to save face or to save our readers from being offended. A good opinion piece should continuously make you think, and it should force you to challenge the very things that you have never questioned before (a statement that is understandably hypocritical coming from someone who wrote a humor column last year).

When this works, it’s awesome. One of my all-time favorite opinion pieces is New York Times columnist Nick Kristof’s defense of sweatshops in third-world countries. This column made me question something that is almost common knowledge (that sweatshops are inherently bad), and through a unique argument, totally changed my mind.

Sure, some people out there were pretty mad, but lots of other people were forced to think.

One of my favorite professors once said that, “One of our society’s greatest flaws is our perpetual fear of being offended.” As a media consumer, I implore you to overcome that fear, and rather than to initially question whether or not a potentially abrasive piece should have run, to discuss its content instead.

Editor in Chief Allison Sylte is a senior journalism major. Her column appears Mondays in the Collegian. She can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @AllisonSylte.