The difference between reporting and commentary

Caleb HendrichJournalists are held to a very high standard of ethics and are expected to meet that standard on a daily basis. It is a fair assumption to make; after all, we are trusted to report the truth of what is happening in the world we live in, and what we say carries an enormous impact.

The public has a right to expect the best from us. But the public also needs to be aware of a particularly distinct division between journalists when they seek to enforce a standard of excellence.

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The primary division between us is that of reporters and commentators, which essentially splits us into the “news” section of the newspaper, and the “opinion” section. More often than not, the public treats both sections as if they are one and the same.

I’ll be blunt: they are not the same thing. I do not report the news; I give my opinion on the news. The Collegian’s reporters report the news; they do not give their opinions on it. To insinuate otherwise does a disservice to both you the reader and the newspaper as a whole.

There are different standards for each desk. Reporters are expected to seek the truth and report it, usually as it happens or shortly after it happens. They must, therefore, find as many aspects of a story as they can. If there is a conflict (and usually there is) they must fairly represent both sides of that conflict where possible. Both sides have a unique angle to add to the story, and the public needs that to make up their own minds about the story.

For columnists, the news has already been reported and our job is to provide our perspective on it. If there is a conflict involved in the news, we tend to fall on one side or the other and we structure our opinions accordingly. Our job is to provide a bit of color to the story, share a unique perspective on the story, or explain why we think the story is a non-issue.

We take sides because that is what we are supposed to do. That’s our job. You don’t look for an opinion columnist that doesn’t express an opinion; that’s like looking for a teacher that doesn’t teach, or a taxi driver that doesn’t drive a taxi.

I tend to see examples of people falsely equating news and opinion when they start complaining about bias in the media. My liberal friends complain that FOX News is biased because of people like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. My conservative friends complain that MSNBC is biased because of people like Rachel Maddow and Ed Shultz. Are these people biased? Definitely. Are they reporters? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Their job is to say, “I’m a liberal/conservative and here’s what I think of the news,” not, “Here is objective news.”
News and opinion writers both publish articles they believe to be the truth about an issue. But here’s the difference: reporters would cover a debate about gay marriage, whereas columnists would take one side or another — sometimes neither.

Does this mean that we are forgiven for poor fact checking, or simply making things up? No, absolutely not. Our opinions would have no weight otherwise, and nobody (not just the people who disagree with us) could take us seriously. Columnists adhere to the same standard of accuracy that reporters do (we do make mistakes from time to time, but we’re human just like everyone else) — we just look at the world through a particular lens.

There are many, many valid complaints to be made about commentators like my staff and me. I’ve heard a lot of them in the relatively short time that I’ve been at the Collegian and they are definitely complaints that I myself have made before arriving here.

Are we sometimes given more influence than we should have? Yes. Do we sometimes come off as arrogant and dismissive? You betcha. (Although, to be fair, that’s a complaint that fits just about anyone who works in the public spotlight). Do we occasionally give the impression that we have an axe to grind? Sure.

But that’s what we are supposed to do. Conflating us with reporters does you a disservice. If you’re looking for news in the opinion section, you’re going to be disappointed. If you point to the opinion section as a poor standard of reporting, you’d be correct because we aren’t reporting.

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There is a big difference. Knowing that difference helps you become a more savvy media consumer, which is something that we sorely need in today’s society.