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Why newspapers should not have columnists

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This is going to sound hypocritical, but I’m going to say it anyway: The world might be a better place if newspaper columns didn’t exist. Same with news channel and talk radio punditry. The problem with each of these media is the same: They distract from genuine factual reporting while making overblown claims to legitimacy and credibility. In the process, they misinform more than they inform.

Disclaimer: I’m definitely not arguing that we ought to abolish public expression of opinion. That would be censorship. However, there should be a greater separation between news and opinion than currently exists. Newspapers and news channels should focus solely on reporting the news, while separate publications should be tasked with disseminating analytical opinion.

First, when published in a medium whose fundamental purpose is to share factual information (a.k.a. a newspaper or news channel), columns can become a substitute for actual news. Shorter, juicier and easier to read, they are likely to be the first pieces that people read and the first that they share on social media. People only have a limited amount of time, and when they focus more of that time on columns, they may reduce time spent on learning the facts. Without this basic factual grounding, people are less able to think for themselves or to think critically about the opinions and analyses they read. Making things worse, if columns regularly attract more readership than news articles, newspapers and news channels may reallocate time and resources toward opinions pieces, detracting from the quality and quantity of news publication.

Second, when newspapers hire regular columnists – or, by analogy, when news channels hire pundits – they give those select few people outsized, undeserved claims to intellectual authority on topics they aren’t always qualified to write or speak about. For example, when it comes to education reform, I would much rather read a blog post by Larry Cuban – a former teacher, district superintendent, and education professor – than I would a column by famed New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has never worked in education and probably isn’t the best analyst of education reform. Nevertheless, people elevate the opinions of people like Kristof in large part (though not entirely) because they write for reputable newspapers. If separate, opinions-only media were the dominant forums for subjective analysis, those publications could hire a variety of specialized journalists rather than a smaller number of generalists who aren’t qualified to write about some of the topics they attempt to tackle.

This argument is not without objections. First, one might claim that academic journals and think tanks already disseminate expert opinion and that it is important to have newspaper journalists to write opinions columns that are more accessible to and engaging for the general public. To a certain extent, this argument makes sense: Journalists do play an important role in making the arcane (laws, research papers, etc.) understandable. However, they do not have to be linked to a news organization in order to serve that function. Separate opinions publications could hire journalists who write accessibly but are also very knowledgeable about their subject areas.

Second, one might argue that unifying opinions and news under a single publication draw in readers or watchers who would not otherwise engage with political and social issues at all. However, separate opinions publications would play the same role. Catchy headlines, bold claims and controversial opinions will always attract people’s attention, regardless of where they are published. Moreover, if people are turning on the news or reading a newspaper in the first place, they are probably interested in learning about the news, so it is difficult to see how opinions disseminated through news media might reach those otherwise uninterested in becoming informed.

A final possible objection is that news itself is often biased or opinionated, and that separating opinions from news might create a false perception that the news itself is always objective. While interesting, this argument is entirely speculative. One could certainly craft a narrative in which separating opinions from news creates a false perception of objectivity among news organizations, but one could just as plausibly craft the opposite narrative. Perhaps drawing a sharper line between news and opinions would increase public scrutiny of news outlets, because people would have greater expectations that their newspapers and news channels will report the facts alone.

I acknowledge that this column is extremely idealistic: Practically speaking, newspaper columns and news channel pundits aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. That being said, we ought to be legitimately concerned about the ways in which news and opinions are combined in today’s news media. Rather than blindly give special weight to the handful of regular columnists employed by The New York Times or The Washington Post, we ought to read the opinions of those who are truly knowledgeable about the areas in which they write. At the same time, newspapers must (1) make sure their columnists only write on topics about which they are knowledgeable and (2) if they truly have the public good in mind, be careful not to let the allure of high-readership columns detract from the more important business of reporting the news as objectively as possible.

Contact Austin Block at aeblock ‘at’ stanford.edu