A Primer on Opinion Writing the Job of an Opinion Journalist Is Not to Rehash the News, but to Help Readers Make Sense of It

By Burris, Keith C. | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 15, 2018 | Go to article overview

A Primer on Opinion Writing the Job of an Opinion Journalist Is Not to Rehash the News, but to Help Readers Make Sense of It


Burris, Keith C., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


What do we do on these pages?

Something totally different than what is done in the rest of the paper.

In the news pages, the news is reported.

On these pages, it is analyzed, commented upon, reflected upon. Here we do opinion journalism. It is opinion, but it is informed, researched, thought out. It is opinion, but journalism.

I admit that in many newspapers today, the detachment and coolness of traditional, straightforward news reporting has been compromised. In my mind that is a pernicious thing.

News reporters should not opine or analyze. Even off duty. And especially not on TV.

News reporters at this, or any great newspaper, do not write for the opinion pages and opinion writers do not write for the news pages.

I do not tell news editors what to write and news editors do not tell me or the opinion writers who work with me what to write.

I am not responsible for a news story you do not like and no news editor is responsible for an editorial you do not like.

Opinion writers should not pretend to play investigative reporters or sleuths. Their job is not to report the news, but to help readers make sense of the news and the world we live in. This is not a slight responsibility.

And that is why it is also not enough for opinion writers to simply rehash the news. Our job is insight. If we can't offer that, we should save newsprint and the readers' time and keep silent.

Insight does not come cheap. It takes digging. So the opinion writer's beat is research. No one is smart enough, or educated enough, to have insight on a subject, or two, a day. So the opinion writer must read, read, read, and seek out experts. And be willing to change his mind.

His education, and experience, and life wisdom might help him to know where to look for wisdom and ideas.

For no opinion writer is an original thinker. But he must have the ability to simplify and synthesize complex thought so that he can bring original and new research, and understanding, to his readers.

Opinion writers shouldbe journalists, par excellence. They are solemnly bound by the written and unwritten codes of their profession. They must not be biased, partisan, or corrupt. If we are any of those things, we fail you the reader and we fail our craft and our consciences.

It is good if we have a values system, a philosophical direction, an intellectual consistency. But, no matter the stakes, we should never have a permanent side.

So, there is all the difference in the world between the loud mouth at the end of the bar, or camera, or blog, and the professional opinion journalist.

* * *

All of our opinion work, in this and every newspaper, appears on what are designated as opinion or editorial pages, which are always in the same part of the paper and segregated from the rest of the paper.

There are three kinds of opinion journalism appearing in the editorial pages of a newspaper - this almost no one understands and there is no reason why most people should be expected to know the categories. …

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