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Parsing the Press: The Rewards And Challenges Of Editorials

Parsing the Press

The opinion pages of a daily newspaper can spark a lot of community discussion and/or outrage. Missoulian opinion editor Tyler Christensen joins Sally and Gwen to talk about the rewards and challenges of editorials for readers — and for reporters.

Listen now on Parsing the Press, a weekly look at how the news is reported, with Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio.

Sally Mauk When newspapers themselves make news, it's often because of something that has appeared on their editorial page written by their editorial board. Tyler Christensen is the opinion editor for the Missoulian newspaper and she's our guest today.

And the Pew Research Center, Tyler, reports that many papers have cut back on the editorials and opinions, but not eliminated them entirely. And I guess I'm curious what you see as the value of papers even having an opinion page. What purpose does that serve?

Tyler Christensen First of all, I guess a little newspaper history. American newspapers are actually rooted in opinion journalism, and over the past 180 years or so, different newspapers have started adding staff columnists and outside columnists and sometimes running feedback from readers in the form of letters to the editor — just to augment what started out as their own institutional official position.

But the important role that they fill in modern times is, a good editorial page is a reflection of that newspaper's community. It's a chance for readers to hear directly from one and other in their own voices in their own words, and to interact with people who live right where they live but who hold different views from their own on the important matters that affect them all.

Whereas social media is tailored to function as a sort of echo chamber where your beliefs are confirmed by your friends and seldom challenged, newspaper opinion pages provide a forum to hear from your actual neighbors with an editor playing referee to make sure things don't get too personal or too toxic.

Mauk We'll talk about the toxicity in a moment, but you as the opinion editor are the gatekeepers for those letters to the editor. And then there's the editorial board, which is you and publisher Jim Strauss and Executive Editor Jim Van Nostrand; and occasionally this committee publishes an editorial.

What's that process, and what do you hope those editorials accomplish?

Christensen Again, newspaper editorials are rooted in tradition, but it's also just a matter of being fair and transparent with the community. We're inviting you to share your views, it's only right that we share our own, too, so you know where the newspaper's leadership stands.

It's also a good way to cut through some of the noise, to focus on finding common ground, help get some discussions back on track or maybe raise issues that haven't been brought up otherwise.

Mauk Gwen, readers don't often distinguish between editorials and news stories — and that causes newspapers, reporters no end of grief.

Gwen Florio Right. Often after a paper runs an editorial, the reporters covering that particular subject will get a lot of blowback; people assuming that the editorial's view means the reporter has a bias or something to that effect.

Tyler, can you talk about the difference between news and editorials, and just the absolute firewall between them? I'm not sure a lot of people understand that.

Christensen Reporters work very, very hard, and unfortunately, the opinion pages only make their jobs harder in a lot of ways.

I will occasionally take the statement that I read in a letter — if it snags my attention — to a reporter and ask them for a fact check or some backgrounding. But otherwise, reporters have no say on what appears on the opinion page.

Their input is not asked. When we form editorials, they don't get to pick and choose letters, and they certainly don't get to pick and choose what those letters say. So too often their work is confused with what appears on the opinion page, and that's just not the reality.

Mauk Well Tyler, political endorsements by the paper's editorial board can generate probably some of the most controversy that you face.

There are two notable examples for the Missoulian, are when the paper endorsed Greg Gianforte when he first ran for Congress and then, after he assaulted a reporter, retracted that endorsement. And then more recently, the paper endorsed Jennifer Fielder for the Public Service Commission. You got huge backlash from readers and then retracted that endorsement.

And it's worth noting both those candidates, by the way, won their races. What do you wish, Tyler, had been done differently in the initial Fielder endorsement, for example?

Christensen I guess to start, it's a major step to rescind an endorsement. It's a big deal, and we definitely don't take that lightly. Every endorsement gets some backlash — we expect it — and we would never rescind an editorial just because it's unpopular; not if we felt the editorial was justified.

But after the endorsement in PSC race, we heard from several people in the community — people we respect — who pointed out quite rightly that we had misstepped. We listened to them and we took their explanations to heart, and we quickly realized they were absolutely right, we had screwed up.

There were several mistakes, but the biggest two, I think, were one: we took too narrow of a look at the specific job duties of a PSC commissioner. There had been a lot of mud thrown around in this particular race — probably all of the races, but also in this one — starting back in the primaries, and we were looking for a way to move past all that and to focus on what a commissioner actually does.

And the second mistake was that we gave far too much weight to the political environment at the time. We didn't know at the time that Republicans would sweep Montana's elections, but we had an inkling that they would at least win some of them, and the five members of the PSC are all Republicans.

The worry was that they would ignore the one Democrat representing our district, effectively giving up our seat at the table. But of course, that seat has to actually speak for the people and represent their interests.

One of the worries that we had with endorsing Jennifer Fielder, which we did point out in the editorial but didn't give enough thought to ourselves initially, is that she has a history of relying on questionable sources and that information. But now that she's on the commission, hopefully she will listen more to the experts in that arena.

Mauk Gwen, a newspaper's political endorsements make it especially tough on reporters who are trying to cover those campaigns for the paper, like reporters covering the Public Service Commission and so on.

Florio They do. I think, depending on the campaign, certainly more-seasoned politicians are pretty aware of how that all works, and while they might not like an endorsement and might object strenuously, they know the rules. But you get some other people who just cannot separate an endorsement from a reporter's views.

There's a lot of debate on whether newspapers should still be endorsing candidates. I think it's important to reflect a community's views. I think that's one of the most valuable things about the opinion pages. I know when I get the paper in the morning — and I still get the physical paper — that's the first section I turn to, because I love that community conversation in the editorials, in the guest editorials and in the letters to the editor. It just gives you such a flavor of Missoula.

Mauk Tyler, you mentioned earlier about the toxicity on social media, and there is so much hateful dialog these days. Newspapers can screen letters to the editor, and do, to try to keep that hate out. But is that an increasing challenge for you? I assume it is.

Christensen It absolutely is.

You know, rage is a powerful fuel, and you see more and more people being whipped up into a frenzy online, being encouraged to use that anger against politicians or businesses or individuals, often starting with only the barest outline of information.

So I spend a lot of time encouraging very angry people to take a little time, do a little research — and a lot of time talking about, you know, what even is a credible source, what makes a good argument, what is a good way to debate. And we've been talking a lot about how to elevate the dialog on the opinion pages.

Mauk Tyler and Gwen, great discussion. Thank you both so much.

Christensen Thank you.

Florio Thank you.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at sally.mauk@mtpr.org.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.

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