Columnists vs. Reporters

This is a quick lesson in media literacy aimed at those people who don’t know the difference between a reporter and a columnist at a newspaper. And, they’re out there.

It’s sparked by this news story out of Kitchener, Ontario, that talks about how the local elementary teachers’ union has voted in favour of a “boycott” of the local newspaper, the Waterloo Region Record.  They are boycotting the newspaper because they are upset with the columns written by one of the paper’s opinion columnists, Luisa D’Amato.

The teachers call it “one sided reporting“. This is an uninformed approach.

Columnists are paid to give personal opinions. They are journalists but they are not “reporters”. Their goal is to instigate discussion and debate which is positive in a healthy democracy. So, the teachers are angry that one person has an opinion they don’t agree with and want to punish that newspaper because one columnist is doing her job.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s how the role of a columnist was described by the New York Times:

“…columnists are not only free to express their personal opinions, that is the primary part of their job. We pay them to have strong opinions and to express them sharply and with great style. They can choose any subject they want to write about, within the bounds of decency and appropriate journalistic inquiry (although we do ask them, with varying degrees of lack of success, to avoid directly endorsing a candidate for office). All of our columnists have areas of interest and expertise that they will return to frequently, but the subject matter of any given column is up to them. They do not have to clear them in advance with me, nor do I exercise any control over the positions they take. The columnists have a very personal relationship with their readers, and the readers deserve to hear directly from the columnists. While columnists must adhere to The Times’s high standards of factual accuracy, they are allowed great latitude in characterizing events, people or issues in a way that expresses an opinion. They are free, for example, to say that they believe that the Catholic Church’s hierarchy treats nuns unfairly, even if the members of that hierarchy deny it. They are not even required to include that denial in their columns. Columns are not required, or intended, to be fair and dispassionate accounts of events. They are by nature one-sided. Columnists may find it useful to give the opposing views on any position they take, or they may not, and it’s entirely up to them. A columnist can be tough, acerbic, playful, joyful, angry, chagrined, outraged or anything else — within the general bounds of decency that are embodied in the values of The Times.”

The key in there was “Columns are not required, or intended, to be fair and dispassionate accounts of events. They are by nature one-sided.”

Ahem. Are you reading this, teachers?

This issue often comes up at election time when a newspaper endorses a certain candidate or a certain party for its readers. This is always an editorial column — but it can make the non-endorsed team very angry and it puts unfair pressure on the reporters.

FACT: Reporters carry out ‘reporting’ – which is fair and balanced. It is not opinion.

It speaks for itself. And, I don’t hear the union complaining about the actual journalism of the newspaper. Here’s a definition, from the award-winning Boston Globe — for those who doubt the distinction between the two:

“A REPORTER gathers facts and information on an event of public interest and then presents them in a readable style to inform the reader. The reporter is supposed to provide objective observation about events that editors deem newsworthy. Reporters are often assigned to “beats,” or particular areas, such as business, politics, energy, or education. Sometimes reporters don’t write the stories they cover. For example, a reporter at the scene of a story occasionally must dictate the material by telephone to another reporter who writes it in the newsroom to meet the deadline for the next day’s issue. A COLUMNIST gives opinions, usually his or her own. A columnist is expected to gather accurate information, just as a reporter does, and then comment on that information. A columnist has more latitude and license than a reporter and is not constrained by the rule of impartiality that governs news writing. While they are subject to the editing and approval of one or more editors, columnists can write just about what they please, as long as it remains within the boundaries of good taste and public acceptability, as defined by the paper.”

I hope this column helped you better understand the difference between reporters and opinion columnists. I hope the teachers in Kitchener-Waterloo are reading it — especially teachers. We expect our educators to teach our children to do their research and form informed opinions, even if they’re unpopular. A boycott vote based on a basic misunderstanding of how the media works and the various roles, is a bad decision.

The irony in all this — is this is a union calling for a boycott and cancelling subscriptions of a newspaper in a media industry already being eaten alive by cutbacks and job losses.

And, if this union’s misdirected and uninformed boycott is effective, more people in the media would likely lose their jobs.

Instead, if you don’t like what the columnist is saying, write your own column and submit it to the newspaper as a rebuttal. If it doesn’t run your rebuttal, then you can boycott.


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