I find it interesting how the digital version of the Times has an entire little box reserved for editorials and op-eds on the right-hand side of the page. It’s as if they’re tacitly acknowledging that people come there not just for news, but also for informed opinions, and, I would venture to say, ones that they already mostly agree with.
Seen in that cynical light, what is the point in having an editorial section in a newspaper? After all, this has survived for years, and certainly existed even before unlimited digital real-estate, when every inch of paper and ink had a specific cost. Perhaps it’s a vestige from the days when papers were largely ideological publications, meant to serve and cater to a specific political faction. I think you could also argue, though, that the modern editorial exists as a way of accomplishing some of the tasks that a newspaper is expected and obligated to do.
After all, one could easily imagine a news publication that contained nothing but facts, collected and presented in legible form. While this may sound, to the layperson, like the fulfilment of a journalistic ideal, the reality is that it’s a struggle even to conceive of how this would actually work. For one, without the power of analysis and informed judgement, you’d be reduced to essentially just repeating what came out of someone’s mouth, and calling that a story, even if it’s ridiculous, or worse, plainly untrue. It’s hard to see, then, how such a publication would be distinguishable from a state-run propaganda machine.
Furthermore, such information, presented without context or analysis, would be, effectively, useless to the general public. Humans have short memories and busy lives, we can’t be expected to remember everything about every developing story, much less to make the logical connections necessary to piece together the raw facts into an informed understanding. Put in that light, journalists practically have an obligation to more than the facts, to actually enhance understanding instead of merely coughing up data. This is the line that, in a functioning society, separates “information” from “journalism”.
This is why claims of bias, and counterclaims of objectivity, are both so fraught: Even if we assume that either claim is technically founded, is the former really bad, and the latter really laudable? Journalism needs to provide an informed, truthful analysis, meaning that objectivity, in its strictest form, is insufficient, and bias, in its most malevolent forms, should, by this very definition, be absent. That’s not to say that objectivity is a bad thing, after all, good journalism, like the sciences, still demands an objective method. Furthermore, that objective method, again, as in the sciences, should be used to support a reasoned and logical conclusion. If it doesn’t, that’s not journalism. Neither am I saying that bias is never a bad thing; though there is probably less political bias in journalism than many believe, the institution still suffers from more subtle structural biases inherent to the craft, which are broadly detrimental.
All this comes back to the editorial, which is perhaps the newspaper’s way of balancing it’s obligation to “the facts” with its obligation to foster reasoned, informed discussion. After all, unlike a normal news story, which we assume, for better or for worse, to be an at least mostly truthful representation of an event, a good editorial doesn’t tell us what to believe, it merely provides a starting point for us to figure out what we should believe. A good editorial ideally helps us make sense of the news by placing it in context, and by providing some level of engaged, intelligent opinion. I think this explains why the editorial has persisted, even as newspapers have become more committed to remaining neutral observers of the world’s events. There is, inevitably, so much happening everywhere, all the time, that is of public importance, that they owe it to their readers to at least try and help them make sense of it all.
I think that’s worth its own special box.