A bad op-ed is more than just a bad take

December 16 marked the six-month anniversary of Vice President Mike Pence’s now-infamous op-ed, “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave.’” In the piece, which was widely criticized for being factually incorrect, the Vice President said, “We’ve slowed the spread, we’ve cared for the most vulnerable, we’ve saved lives, and we’ve created a solid foundation for whatever challenges we may face in the future. That’s a cause for celebration, not the media’s fear mongering.”

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Looking back on the piece six months later in the middle of the nation’s worst spike in COVID-19 cases to date, a wave unmatched anywhere else in the world, the Vice President’s op-ed seems laughable. When the piece was published on June 16, 2020, there were 24,885 daily reported cases of COVID-19, the lowest number of cases recorded in the country since the op-ed’s publication.

Frustrations towards the Pence op-ed’s misinformation were reflected in a July 2020 letter signed by more than 280 Wall Street Journal news team members to the outlet’s publisher, Alma Latour. The letter said that “[the opinion desk’s] lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources.”

Rather than viewing the letter as an opportunity for discourse on how to better improve upon editorial discretion, the Wall Street Journal editorial board published a response in which they deflected responsibility, chalking up the letter to “the wave of progressive cancel culture.”

The publication of the Vice President’s disregard for science is not an isolated issue. Rather, the Pence op-ed reflects a more systemic issue in the journalism community — the problem of which opinions a highly regarded outlet greenlights for publication.

The issue does not lie solely in the realm of inaccuracy; there is danger in which opinions that an editorial section chooses to elevate (and by proxy, validate) through publication. The content of some op-eds may either damage marginalized communities on grounds rooted in conspiracy and bigotry or encourage readers to engage in dangerous behavior.

On June 3, 2020, The New York Times published an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, which was widely criticized as inciting racial violence against the Black community during the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement.

Two days after publication and intense national debate, the editorial board affixed a statement to the original piece stating that “the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.” However, the statement also reaffirmed that the error in publication was solely in the realm of fact-checking and style, not for advocating for a dangerous call-to-action.

In response to the publication of the op-ed, The NewsGuild of New York, a union representing over 3,000 journalists at outlets including The New York Times, released a statement condemning the publication of the controversial opinion.

“[Senator Cotton’s] message undermines the journalistic work of our members, puts our Black staff members in danger, promotes hate, and is likely to encourage further violence. Invariably, state violence disproportionately hurts Black and brown people. It also jeopardizes our journalists’ ability to work in the field safely and effectively.”

The NewsGuild’s statement reflects the intersection of the issue of editorial discretion, or lack thereof, in fact-checking and the validation of dangerous opinions which, even though published by one section of an outlet, both reflects poorly on the entire body of content produced by all sections of the outlet and affects the ability for journalists to do their jobs.

This separation of sections is by no means in and of itself a bad thing. Having a separation of news and editorial staff and leadership helps to ensure that news coverage remains objective.

Publications, however, all too often use this separation between opinion and news sections to deflect criticisms for controversial pieces, avoiding accountability for both reprehensible opinions and factually inaccurate arguments, which dilutes trust of the publication as a whole.

While op-eds in the journalism community are generally viewed as a means of elevating the marketplace of ideas, as shown by the Pence and Cotton op-eds, a lack of fact-checking and editorial discretion can both spread dangerous misinformation and frustrate members of the news team, whose job of providing objective reporting, meaning the story is factually accurate and that the reporter’s bias is removed from the story, requires that the publication as a whole remain credible.

This concern was expressed during the creation of the modern op-ed page. The section was launched by The New York Times in 1970 and became one of the most widely read in the paper. Other publications soon followed suit with their own sections dedicated to commentary from the community.

Michael Socolow, a media historian from the University of Maine, explained that during the several years of discussion which led up to the creation of the modern op-ed page, “the key sticking point in the implementation [of the op-ed page] concerned supervisory authority … Sulzberger [the then publisher for The New York Times] appeared indecisive and, at times, managerially incompetent, when forced to intervene in the conflicts between the editorial department and the news department.”

However, the issues surrounding op-eds are not limited to a lack of editorial discretion of a publication’s opinion staff. A 2018 survey by the American Press Institute, an educational nonprofit which advocates for the advancement of news media, found that only 43 percent of Americans could easily distinguish between news and opinion on news websites or social media platforms. The survey further found that 29 percent did not know the difference between an analyst and a commentator, 28 percent did not know the difference between a reporter and a columnist, and 27 percent did not know the difference between the terms ‘news’ and ‘editorial.’

These findings, combined with the fact that the amount of folks who receive their news online has increased in recent years, have heightened news-related anxieties to a breaking point.

Conversations continue with regard to holding mainstream publications accountable for the opinions represented within their editorial pages. The July 2020 “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” as published in Harper’s Magazine, and its counter “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” as published in The Objective, show that the discourse centers around finding a balance between a perceived cancel culture and accountability towards opinions which do harm to marginalized communities.

Other debates revolve more around whether or not to abandon news outlets that publish both disagreeable opinions and news which may counter one’s prior beliefs. This has been prominent under the outgoing presidential administration. With a near-constant onslaught of tweets, speeches, and interviews attacking mainstream news outlets as “fake news,” many supporters of the outgoing president have been drawn towards outlets like Fox News, One America News Network, and Newsmax, which often dismiss objectivity in favor of pleasing a specific political ideology.

This all suggests that the issue of separation between editorial sections and newsrooms has partisan results — even if the issue is nonpartisan. Often, that comes in the form of mistrust in newsroom processes. An analysis of 25 national news outlets and 24 local news outlets by the Duke University Reporter’s Lab found that labels distinguishing between news content and opinion content were at best inconsistent. This lack of labeling, combined with the findings of the American Press Institute on the public’s lack of knowledge on journalism terms, fosters this mistrust.

Properly labeling articles, while a drop in the bucket of solutions for issues surrounding editorial discretion, has shown promising results. 

Lynn Walsh, assistant director for the journalism accountability nonprofit Trusting News, explained in a newsletter: “When USA TODAY learned their Facebook users were having a hard time telling the difference between news and opinion content they were sharing on Facebook, editors manually added the word ‘column’ to some Facebook headlines. As a result, they perceived a lower level of confusion from their Facebook users.”

Publishers have a responsibility to make the distinction between news and opinion apparent. Consistently ensuring that editorials are labeled as such, as well as ensuring that all opinion articles are labeled accurately in social media posts, are good starting points.

Likewise, given recent measures on the part of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, labels affixed to tweets with unclear content could also begin to alleviate some of these problems in recognizing this separation.

Moreover, publishers have the responsibility to ensure that editorial teams, specifically those responsible for overseeing the publication of op-eds, are using the principles of fact-checking and transparency. This is not to say that opinions should not be published out of fear that they will be viewed unfavorably by the news team or the public. Opinions that cannot be backed up with tangible facts, data, or verified information, which cause harm to marginalized communities, which incite violence, or all of the above, contribute more to the spread of misinformation and polarization than they contribute to the marketplace of ideas.

This sort of editorial discretion takes time, effort, and a willingness to be held accountable to develop. Nevertheless, publications with a privileged standing in the media sphere must hold themselves to the editorial standard that their readers deserve.

Jacob Sutherland is a contributing writer for Catalyst, the former News Editor of UCSD’s student paper The Guardian, and has written for the San Diego Union-Tribune. This piece was edited by Marlee Baldridge. Copy editing by Janelle Salanga.

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