I want to be sure everyone knows where I’m coming from on this.
First of all, everyone in the legitimate news business is required by ethics and various rules and laws, particularly of print publications, to sign their writing, i.e., put their name on a column/opinion piece. Often, as with my column in most publications, it carries a photo of the author.
As I’ve often half-jokingly said, those who disagree with me and who might be a little off kilter, can take shots at me before I know who or why.
Newspapers may produce an editorial, which is an opinion piece that differs from a column in that the editorial is the official position/opinion of the newspaper’s publishers-owners. A column is merely the opinion of the author of the piece and not necessarily that of the publication.
EVEN WITH some flexibility as to expressing opinions on the editorial page or in a column within the opinion section of a newspaper, newspapers are still liable for any reflection on anyone’s character. That comes under the heading of libel and there are laws governing that.
Most newspapers today also have a presence on the Internet, the great worldwide web (www) and some of them reproduce part or all of their opinion page(s) on that marvelous but maddening vehicle.
There is a constant barrage on the Internet of “writings,” opinions and “facts” — those are in quotes because if you check/verify these statements, they are often in error.
Proving libel or slander against a newspaper is next to impossible because the “offended party” must prove intent. No newspaper I’ve ever known of sets out to intentionally libel or slander someone. That’s assuming that you don’t call sensationalized publications a newspaper. They’re gossip sheets and/or entertainment rags. However, they’re still subject to libel and slander laws.
THOSE IN the newspaper business sometimes make errors. Often it’s due to a misspelling, or to missing part of some research, but it’s never intentional. In this business, people can and do lose their jobs for carelessness in not checking facts or not doing enough research to have a well-rounded story.
Editorial writers and opinion columnists may incite disagreement. As a former boss used to tell me: “Opinions and butts are alike. Everyone has one.”
Newspapers encourage people to voice their opinions via letters to the editor. Of course, there are some parameters for those expressions. Usually, papers will restrict the number of words in a letter — on average between 300 and 500. People who have well-formed opinions can usually present their argument on a well-publicized/reported situation pretty well in that amount of space.
Longer reader-produced pieces are usually labeled “op-ed” articles. Often, those writers are featured on a page “opposite” of the page that contains the newspaper’s editorial. The label can also connote “opposite” of the paper’s “editorial” position.
THOSE WHO pen letters and op-ed pieces are also subject to the same libel and slander laws and newspapers are doubly careless if they print such missives without verification and authentication.
As reasonable people can see, there are some controls necessary on the part of publications to protect themselves from a financial disaster due to losing a multi-million dollar suit. Theoretically, all publications are under that obligation to protect their investors and to be able to keep the doors open.
Often, Internet writers use no name or identifiable address, web or otherwise, when they produce their diatribes and ravings. They apparently have no real convictions. That should make everything they write suspicious at best and unworthy of reading. Those who won’t identify themselves and stand behind their beliefs I call COWARD.
With newspapers there are safeguards for the readers plus centuries of adhering to a code of ethics and to laws that not only govern, but also ensure common decency and respect for any and all who are going to read their product.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.