BROOM: Facts first, opinions second
Columnists should ground their opinions in facts everyone can agree on
I cannot, obviously, be certain about how other readers of The Cavalier Daily feel when they read the paper. However, I do try, as a part of my role, to consider more than just how I feel and what I think. To that end, reading the comments online and occasional discussion and emails with other readers is helpful. I have written in the past hoping that online commenters would engage more substantially with the content of The Cavalier Daily, and I continue to think the ability to comment is a strong element of the digital presence of the paper. No, not all of the comments are helpful or useful, but one can move right past online comments if that’s the case. Sometimes, though, I am fairly confident that others must share my basic reaction to some pieces in the paper. In reading one recent Opinion piece, I simply felt lectured.
In the midst of a handful of Opinion columns that generated a lot of reaction online and caused more than a bit of controversy, one op-ed in particular struck me. Russell Bogue and Ashley Spinks, Opinion Editors for The Cavalier Daily, and Dani Bernstein, a Senior Associate Editor for The Cavalier Daily, wrote “The marketplace of ideas,” in which they defended running a piece calling for the end of the Women, Gender and Sexuality major at the University. Cavalier Daily Opinion writers were described as courageous for attaching their names to potentially unpopular opinions. And then possible bias (who among us has no bias, we’re asked) and being uninformed (we’re likewise asked who among us hasn’t expressed uninformed opinions or spoken from a limited perspective) are essentially packaged up as a part of that courage, making it feel as though we readers are told to give the brave opinion writers a pass on any errors. How can any of us criticize anything an Opinion writer has to say if we are accused of assailing a brave person doing nothing different than something everyone has done?
Another point from the “Marketplace” column: “They’re fellow students who don’t deserve hate or abuse from anyone in our community. When we disagree with them — as we should, at times — we should do so openly and respectfully. There is no place in higher education for the vitriol and slander that have accompanied various columns on our website.” It is important for the staff of The Cavalier Daily to remember that their readers are not just students, and not just people who are participating in the teaching and learning portions of higher education. Even among just the local community, University staff and Charlottesville locals read the paper. The digital platform is growing (and improving, generally), and it is clear when an article has hit the internet and is attracting notice from other places. Part of the issue with some of the recent Opinion pieces is that the writers are unable or unwilling to step out of their own experience and understanding of the world and consider others’ perspectives, experiences or realities. Remembering that the Opinion columns in The Cavalier Daily are not written only for fellow students would be a good thing.
The other main idea put forth in the “marketplace” column is that factual inaccuracy is the only reason aside from libel to decline to run an Opinion piece. This sounds like a good practice. But facts unmoored from any context don’t help illuminate a discussion, nor do they help inform a reader. Further, in the case of Ben Rudgley’s column, there were, as noted in the “marketplace” piece, “very few fact-based claims.” He wasn’t factually inaccurate because he didn’t base his column on facts. Yet we’re supposed to take his conclusions and prescriptions seriously? How can one call for actions in the world without grounding those actions in some truth upon which we can all agree?
I am not calling on The Cavalier Daily not to run columns. But to characterize all of the columns as brave, to chastise commenters for over-the-top responses at times and to call into question the standing of anyone to question bias or point out what appear to be uninformed opinions seems to me to be chilling to the very discussion the Opinion writers seek to generate. It isn’t a matter of not running a column, it’s a matter of doing a better job crafting the column so that is has a basis people can agree on before offering opinions about which people will, of course, differ. If the discussion is about the opinions, while starting from a shared understanding of the facts in play, I believe the discussion will be better.
Christopher Broom is the public editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @cd_publiceditor.