Why Opinion Journalism Matters

Jonathan Stein, Managing Editor of Project Syndicate, explains that opinion journalism provides the factual integrity, diverse perspectives, and credible voices needed to navigate times of conflict.


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Opinion journalism is a rather specialized branch of journalism. And some people would say: is it really journalism? We’re not covering news events. What we’re doing is covering the forces that drive the news and events and trends. Opinion journalism needs to have two principles underlying it, and one is a steadfast commitment to the facts. There’s a famous former US senator named Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who put it best, saying “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Opinion journalism needs to be fact-based. You can’t simply say whatever you want. And that’s the reason why there are editors to make sure that whatever the opinion is, whatever the argument is, it’s based on facts. And the other important principle for opinion journalism is to make sure that a diversity of views is represented, because a fact can be interpreted in more than one way.

What something means is as important as what happened, if there was a third principle that I’d want to introduce, it’s to make sure that the person who is addressing a topic actually has the expertise and the credentials to convince a reader that they know what they’re talking about, that they’re the right person to be addressing that topic. Whether they’re coming from the right or the left or somewhere in between their credibility to know that that person has written two books on the subject or has addressed an international audience on that subject before. The opinion writers may be academics, the opinion writers may be senior policymakers or heads of state leading politicians. These principles are particularly important in times of extreme polarization, not only with elections, you know, or referenda like Brexit or the Trump election in 2016, but also most acutely during international conflicts, during wars.

Readers are going to come to us to find out what it means when Russia attacks Ukraine, what that’s going to mean for, for example, Taiwan. The same thing with Gaza. It is important to maintain the facts. Recently, we had a piece that made very serious allegations against protesters for Palestine, and the piece made some claims that simply weren’t true.

For example, one claim was that Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, was at a Justice for Palestine protest and was waving a Hamas banner. It didn’t happen. And we went back to the author and we said, we’ve cut this paragraph because this didn’t actually happen. One rule of thumb for covering a conflict like this is not to accept arguments that do not recognize the national aspirations on both sides.

It’s also very important to distinguish between values and interests. Very often you hear leaders saying, these are our core values and then they turn around and contradict those core values. On another issue, and this is because very often what are called values are really just interests. And you hear the Global South saying, wait a minute. On Ukraine, you said you human rights are everything and civilian lives cannot be wiped out by an aggressor.

And now we look at Gaza and we see exactly that’s what’s happening. And you guys in the Global North are endorsing this during periods of international conflict. We’ve lost some writers, some contributors of ours in the Ukraine war. We lost a lot of Russian writers who stayed in Russia, had to toe the Kremlin line. People who sounded liberal in the past now sound like rabid chauvinists.

What they were doing was apologizing for a massive violation of international law. That’s happened with some of our Western writers as well who left behind the facts. And when we challenged them on it, said, well, it’s my piece and I can write whatever I want ,and you can’t write whatever you want. You can do that if you’re blogging.

When we publish something, we’re not saying that we agree with the opinion, but we’re vouching for the legitimacy of this view. This is in fact, a credible, fact-based view, and the blogger won’t get that pushback because the blogger isn’t being edited. The writers who write for an opinion journalism publication, they know what the other contributors to that publication are doing.

So if another author is saying crazy stuff and not sticking to the facts, they may come to us and say they’re affecting my reputation, I’m wondering if I should continue writing for this publication. There’s a lot more to say about opinion journalism, but I think those are the main principles. Stick to the facts, get a diversity of views, and make sure that people who are expressing those views have the credentials to address a global audience.

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