Journalistic obfuscation: The mystery around newspaper editorials

Credit: Graphic Credit: Matt Fikse-Verkerk

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?

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