Godfrey: The task of opinion journalists


Brian Achenbach/Iowa State Daily

Opinion columnists are just as important as reporters. Where reports break the news, columnists discuss the news and issues at hand and show the reader how to use the information they have learned.  

Elaine Godfrey

Writing opinion is important. It’s journalism. And it’s a service.

I begin so bluntly because, admittedly, it can sometimes be difficult to see how writing a column on a chosen topic — and stating one’s personal feelings about said topic — is truly journalism. Journalism, after all, is supposed to be factually based, unbiased, a true representation of an event or occurrence.

So is opinion.

Writing an opinion column is not about ranting; and it certainly is not about pandering to one’s own interests. It isn’t just an unruly personal expression of beliefs or ideologies, either.

At least, we here at the Daily try hard not to make it so.

Just as a reporter does, an opinion columnist approaches a story with as much objectivity as he or she can. The columnist finds a topic that is relevant and timely, just as a reporter does, and begins to research.

Writing good opinion requires sources, facts and evidence; it’s like writing a small research paper.

But the difference between writing a column and a research paper is that, at the end of a column, the author comes to some worthy conclusion, based on well-researched facts and thoughtful objectivity. The writer is able to make a “call to action,” as they say in high school English class — or perhaps, he or she simply makes you think.

“There are the facts,” the columnist might say. “Now, isn’t that interesting?”

The purpose of writing opinion is not to ramble on about ourselves or our hate for a certain political policy or candidate. After all, opining for opining’s sake is certainly not to be found in the handbook of great opinionators.

The purpose of opinion writing is to provide a service to an audience — in our case, the devoted readers of the Iowa State Daily.

In their columns, columnists report news — studies or stories previously unknown or perhaps controversial enough to be unclear to readers. Then the writer interprets the information, in the hopes of educating readers on the topic at hand, making the issue simpler, maybe even a bit more conversational.

A good columnist shows the reader how to use the information they have learned, based on his or her research on the subject — how to think about it critically and how to approach it in a context which relates to them. Indeed, that involves revealing his or her biased views; but ideally, these views are a result of thorough study and extensive thought.

This is our goal at the opinion desk; sometimes we fail, and sometimes we succeed.

People forget that writing opinion is not meant to be a stump speech or a soap box for writers to abuse — and yes, sometimes we here at the Daily forget that, too.

But we aren’t just a desk of angry people in the depths of the journalism school viciously scribbling away about Mitt Romney or women’s rights.

We are journalists doing our best to provide a service to our readers — as reporters, researchers and interpreters of the news.