BROOM: Do your research
Opinion columnists incorporate more accurate factual evidence in their columns
I’m starting this week with a handful of small changes I’ve noticed in The Cavalier Daily platforms that I think will help make the overall paper stronger. Online, in many news articles there are pull quotes at the top of the web pages. This is especially useful on a mobile web platform. I find it easier, in combination with the headline and sub headline, to determine whether I am interested in reading the article. Where the quotations are provocative, it seems like it will help generate more interest on the part of readers. Similarly, I’ve seen increasing numbers of quick polls or questions for readers to answer online. This is also a good way to increase interaction and engagement on the parts of readers. I think the newly constituted staff is making some really good choices about tweaks and improvements early in their run.
Unfortunately, I am not as optimistic so far about what I am reading in the Opinion pages. Although the topics and opinions have certainly generated a markedly higher level of interest from commenters online than has been the norm for the last several months, much of that interest has been because the columns themselves have left a lot to be desired. Dani Bernstein addressed the question of whether the University should renew its expiring contract with Aramark for food service around Grounds in “Cut the ties: The University should discontinue its contract with Aramark due to ethical concerns.” In it, she argues that the University should drop Aramark because of issues with the treatment of workers in other locations around the country. While this seems to me to be a compelling line of argument, there’s no research offered as to the quality of the alternative companies the University might contract with. Readers are offered statistics about Aramark’s interactions with the National Labor Relations Board but there is no context given about what those numbers mean. More research is necessary for columns like this — at least if the conclusion is going to be drawn that UVA should discontinue working with a company.
Will Henagan wrote about merit based scholarships in “Stronger Incentives: The University should offer merit based scholarships.” Similarly to Bernstein’s column, this piece suffered greatly from a lack of research and evidence. Henegan made several assertions about the need for merit-based funding but did not offer any data or evidence to support his assertions. At one point he wrote, “There are hundreds of high-capacity qualified students who are choosing other institutions because they do not see the value of being an Echols Scholar at the University.” Without some sort of source for this, I’m not sure why readers should believe it to be true. Where he did use data, he got it wrong: the state of Virginia funds just over 10% of the academic budget total at the University and 5.8% of the overall operations budget including the medical center. More attention to the factual details will help make opinion columns more effective.
Lastly, in the column with the most active comment thread of the week, Ben Rudgley wrote that the University should shutter the Women, Gender and Sexuality department. There is no evidence offered in the column. That a column is an opinion piece doesn’t mean that any opinion is as good as another. It still needs support and reasoning rooted in factual evidence. This piece follows a line of logic that depends on suppositions about Women, Gender and Sexuality studies that don’t appear to be well supported. Indeed, many in the comments thread took some of the assertions head on and responded effectively.
All three of the examples I just gave have the same fundamental problem: a lack of factual evidence to support the opinion and assertions in the column. Those writing opinion pieces will write their opinion and, especially at a college paper, will take time to find a voice and style that works for them. The basics of persuading someone are the same, though, and the readers of The Cavalier Daily deserve and appear to expect some amount of research and care put into developing an argument instead of just reading an opinion.
Christopher Boom the Public Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at cd_publiceditor.