It’s common for those of us in the news business to hear people confuse the terms “article,” story” and “column.” Despite all appearing in the paper, a “column” is not related to the “articles” or “stories” that make up the news section of the Hill Country News, or of other newspapers.
Columns appear with the writer’s name, and usually their photo, and are found on our Opinion page and our Faith page in each issue.
Columns and an occasional newspaper editorial appear on our Opinion page. Everything on our Opinion page is just that — opinion.
Sure, writers usually intersperse their opinion pieces with facts and statistics to support or help illustrate the point they’re trying to make. However, those pieces are not news stories. While opinion pieces may inform you, their greater purpose is to make a point, to make you think, to encourage action or engagement on an issue.
Reading a column by Tyler Christensen, who is the Opinion page editor at the Missoulian in Montana, we decided to take a moment to restate the purpose of our own Opinion page.
In her column, Christensen wrote, “Last week, I cringed while reading a letter to the editor in which the writer… repeatedly referred to letters and guest columns on the Opinion page as though they were news articles.”
Christensen goes on to say that reader’s confusion was a frustrating example of a pervasive problem described in a recent report published by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
That report, titled “Americans and the News Media,” found that fewer than 3 in 10 Americans actually know the difference between an editorial and a news story.
“I’m disheartened by these numbers but not at all surprised. Over the past decade, I’ve watched blogs and social media increasingly conflate news with opinion even as traditional print, radio and TV news failed to draw a clear line between hard news and commentary for their readers, listeners and viewers,” Christensen wrote.
At the Hill Country News, we often face the same challenge. From phone calls to letters to the editor — and some letters that readers don’t want published — we often find that people confuse the news stories on the news pages with opinion writing that resides on our Opinion or Faith pages.
To follow Christensen’s example, we decided to share the definitions, and distinctions, between the types of pieces you may see in the paper.
News stories are simply that. They report on news events or tell factual stories about our community and the people and businesses who live, work and play here.
An editorial is an opinion, written to represent the official view of the newspaper’s editorial board.
Columns are opinion pieces written by staff members or people who we invite to contribute their opinions regularly. These do not represent the official view of the newspaper; they are simply the opinion of the writer.
Guest columns are written by people not connected to the Hill Country News staff or its regular contributors. We may or may not agree with their opinions and we often seek out different perspectives as a way of ensuring that a broad range of viewpoints are presented to readers.
We also publish letters to the editor submitted by readers. We like what Christensen had to say about her letters policy:
“Letters to the editor are shorter opinion pieces on any matter of public interest. No special expertise is required for a letter, and because space is so limited, we tend to give letter writers a great deal more leeway when it comes to making assertions. Nevertheless, I do watch for obvious factual errors and try to catch as many as I can. But in the end, we rely on our readers to fight bad information with good, counter weak arguments with strong ones, and engage with one another in honest, open debate.
“That’s why we don’t publish anonymous commentary or anything signed under a fake name. While we fully understand the discomfort that can come from attaching your name to an unpopular or controversial opinion, it’s necessary for transparency and accountability — two of the fundamental building blocks of constructive public discourse.”
The purpose of editorials, columns and letters is to inspire thought, provoke debate and discussion, and to engage readers in an exchange of ideas. If you disagree with an opinion, join the discussion and send us your own as a letter or even contact us about writing a guest column.