Journalistic obfuscation: The mystery around newspaper editorials

Newspapers obstinately do little or nothing to clarify the difference between news and the opinions formed by the paper's editorial board. Case in point: The Seattle Times.

Every quarter I ask my reporting students from the University of Washington Department of Communication if they can tell me where newspaper editorials come from. I even give them a clue: "E.B.," which, mercifully, has never resulted in one of them guessing "Easter Bunny" or "Eddie Bauer."

I wondered last fall whether either of the two apparent acquaintances in front of me in a grocery-store line could venture any guesses better than either of the above.

"I see The Times endorsed Obama," one said.

"I figured they would," the other replied.

But, of course, The Seattle Times did nothing of the kind. Moreover, the exchange made me muse about who or what in the imagination of Acquaintance Two constituted "they."

The fact is, editorials represent the collective opinion of members of a newspaper editorial board, which functions — at The Times, at least — independently of others who work at the company.

Who knew? Not many would be my guess. If I were to ask a random sampling of 1,000 adults to identify the source of editorials, I'd be surprised if more than 10 could. Many who don't know also could be expected to add that they don't much care.

Just as many who should know also seem puzzled. A few months ago a Huffington Post piece indicated that House Speaker John Boehner had written "an editorial" for the Wall Street Journal, rather than an op-ed article. I sent a suggestion for a correction, which was made later that day.

Why the ignorance toward an institution so important and influential? My belief is that it has to do with the notion that those who work at newspapers historically have made little effort to apprise readers of how they ply their trade. In the absence of accurate information, readers seem to be left to surmise that editorial opinion simply comes from some page-gray entity to be identified as "they."

Indeed, The Times labels editorials "The Newspaper's View," which (leaving aside trying to imagine how an inanimate object could possess a "view") seems to almost deliberately obfuscate the source of such content.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, when it published a print edition, labeled editorials "P-I Opinion." Was the reader to suppose, then, that everybody at the newspaper weighed in on editorial content?

Why make the matter arcane? Certain newspaper editorial pages carry a friendly explanation such as: The opinions expressed as editorials on these pages are those of members of the editorial board and do not necessarily express those of other employees of this newspaper.

Beyond that (and for what it's worth), some papers (such as The Times) also include the names of editorial-board members. But with The Times, here again, there's no accompanying explanation of what such board members do.

For a quarter century I have asked various editorial-page editors and board members at several newspapers why they don't provide explanatory information to enlighten readers and (perhaps) help the latter understand the strict separation between editorials and news coverage.

The answer invariably is some version of either "we've thought about it" or "we don't have to."

To the latter: Of course they don't, just as readers certainly don't have to agree with or adhere to editorial opinion. But let's at least agree that editorial content can have a lot of merit, if only because it often brings to the broad arena vital information that otherwise might not be broached in a public fashion.

Doesn't it make sense to leave no guess work as to the origin of such content? Shouldn't everybody get to know who "they" are?

Since 1994 Senior Lecturer Mike Henderson, a veteran writer and editor for The Times, Post-Intelligencer, (Everett) Herald, Seattle Weekly and Crosscut, has been a member of the faculty of the University of Washington Department of Communication. He considers himself to be the only journalist ever to interview actor Gene Hackman inside San Quentin prison while wearing a pair of Hackman's pants. He can be reached at mikh48@hotmail.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, May 21, 8:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent points, Professor Henderson.

Perhaps you and your students would be interested in weighing in on another Seattle Times obfuscation that extends to the newsroom: The Washington News Council will be hearing a complaint, the first in over 10 years against this newspaper, on June 1 from 9 to noon at Town Hall.

I think it offers important discussion points on responsible journalism and ethics.

gaia

Posted Tue, May 21, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

"...editorials represent the collective opinion of members of a newspaper editorial board, which functions — at The Times, at least — independently of others who work at the company."

Well, in theory, the editorial board operates separately in their thought but you can sometimes see their opinion creep into some local news stories. Not good.

westello

Posted Tue, May 21, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

"I see The Times endorsed Obama," one said.

"I figured they would," the other replied.

But, of course, The Seattle Times did nothing of the kind. Moreover, the exchange made me muse about who or what in the imagination of Acquaintance Two constituted "they."


Hmm. Well, I suppose that as an inanimate object, The Times (as a bunch of folded up newsprint with words on it) is incapable of endorsing anything, but I think that most people know that the editorials that appear in newspapers are not the result of taking a poll of the employees. "They", as in the collective endeavor that is The Times, however, makes perfect sense. And that those people loosely known as The Editors, who write the editorials, constitute the publicly-displayed will of the collective entity is a concept that most people should understand. At least "they", in that form, makes sense in the syntax of the English language. A quite common, politically correct newspeak use of that collective pronoun, as in "Always tell your child you love them" makes no sense at all. Yet it proliferates.

Or did I miss the point of the article entirely?

dbreneman

Posted Tue, May 21, 5:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Mike, you're forgetting that a newspaper's publisher/owner can insert themselves in the endorsement process at will, as Times publisher Frank Blethen is fond of doing. If the Times endorses Obama, Frank and the mighty Blethen family have at least signed off on the decision, if not dictated it. For that reason, the decisions of the Times editorial page don't always reflect the opinions of the members of the editorial board.

Mannix

Posted Wed, May 22, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Frank Blethen is listed as a member of the Times editorial board right on the editorial page. It's no secret, and it's not uncommon among publishers.

bigyaz

Posted Tue, May 21, 7:47 p.m. Inappropriate

"Why the ignorance toward an institution so important and influential..."

Because people quit thinking once they got online so easily 20 years or so ago. Instead of all that free information making people more sensible, and well informed, it seems to have dulled their thought processes so they read nearly anything online and think it is the "truth".

How to change that?

Posted Tue, May 21, 9:50 p.m. Inappropriate

I suspect that today's editorials are written to be safe and not make waves. Filling advertising space is the main goal and everything else is secondary. If you're making waves, your advertisers worry about offending their clientele which is a no-no. Better safe then sage.

Maybe we'd pay more attention and care if we knew the news media in all of its venues were doing their job and they said or reported anything worth a hoot. They haven't though. Unfortunately for all practical purposes the lame stream media has been asleep at the wheel since the Clinton years. Oh they woke up briefly during the Bush years but mostly they've been snoozing and schmoozing with their favorite brand of president. And now Obama and company has zeroed in on those in the media they deem to be enemies of his regime. Even Saint Bob wasn't safe. Who's next?

Djinn

Posted Wed, May 22, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

The second part of this piece ought to have addressed the question of "who picks the Editorial Board" that then delegates the writing of editorials to a someone called "editorial writer" - many "former" of those abound. These creatures are like advertising writers who ultimately express - smartly, boringly, predictably, indidiously - the opionion, the wishes, the INTEREST of THE OWNER, who / which may be a person, or a corporation with stockholders, majority and minor. The Seattle Times happens to be - over-all - an unusually extra mediocre example of the American home town paper. The first parts derives near entirely from syndicates, there are a few fine local reporters or the other sections. Its columnists - the less said the better.

mikerol

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