Good journalism helps a community have a conversation with itself. It reflects the conversation that’s already happening, and leads with new information and perspectives.
Here on the op-ed page, journalism also serves to foster dialogue and play host to thoughtful criticism of tightly held beliefs or dominant narratives. Good opinion writing advances the conversation by presenting alternative perspectives in a respectful, engaging manner.
Here are some rules I’m laying down to help foster an environment where the content is, above all, informed, factual and constructive. I would very much appreciate your help in refining these guidelines to encourage the safe sharing of multiple perspectives.
Sources, sources, sources
If your letter or opinion piece contains a factual claim, I’m going to need to see a source. You can use little footnotes or asterisks, and the sources you provide will be included at the bottom of the piece, with links where applicable.
Keep it constructive
I’m a fan of the call-out. It’s absolutely necessary to hold those in power accountable, or to correct false or harmful beliefs. We must challenge one another and ourselves to question our assertions and prejudices. However, there’s a difference between call-outs for the sake of calling out and call-outs that further conversation.
Here’s an example of constructive criticism:
“When John Smith said that the homeless shelter will bring pedophiles to the area, he failed to acknowledge that 90% of victims of childhood sexual abuse are assaulted by someone they know. Such beliefs further the harmful perception that homeless individuals are dangerous criminals.”
Here’s what won’t be acceptable:
“John Smith clearly hates homeless people and is a heartless idiot.”
Obviously, not all examples are going to be so clear-cut. But the general guideline I would like to enforce is to separate personhood and behavior. “John Smith is an idiot” is less helpful and instructive than explaining why you think John Smith’s views are idiotic. If you’re smart enough, readers will be able to read between the lines that you think John Smith is an idiot. Well-done sarcasm and satire are encouraged.
Show, don’t tell
You might know the racist history of zoning in American cities well enough to say that, well, zoning in American cities has roots in racism. But every reader doesn’t share your unique knowledge base. Backing up your claims with well-sourced (see above) facts and explanations will help to instruct and inform.
Acknowledge the opposition
It is very rare that a local issue is completely one-sided, and that the person opposite you has zero merit to their argument. If you’re going to argue that John Smith is an idiot, you need to find one point on which he is right and/or you agree.
Continuing the example above: John Smith is right: 10% of childhood sexual abusers are strangers. Serial sexual predators DO exist and, if they’ve been caught and jailed, they do tend to struggle to find housing and so end up homeless. However, that’s not to say there’s a higher percentage of sexual predators among the homeless population. The overwhelming majority of victims of childhood sexual abuse don’t tell anyone (most are in their 40s, 50s or beyond before they ever disclose), so there are many predators among the general population who have never been outed, prosecuted, jailed or labeled sex offenders.
I want to defend this rule a little bit. I can see that some might find it juvenile, like your mom making you say something nice about someone who was mean to you. But I believe it’s important to acknowledge one another’s fears and beliefs, to say to one another, “I see you, I understand where you’re coming from, and I still disagree.” It’s a tiny step toward re-humanizing our community.
Again, this is not a hard-and-fast-rule. I don’t mean this as a “good people on both sides” thing. Our local issues aren’t Nazis vs. peaceful protesters. When it comes to things we struggle with here, there’s (usually) room for a little tolerance.
Don’t say in 1,000 words what you can say in 500. I’m not going to set limits, because digital outlets aren’t bound by physical space, but I will ruthlessly edit out extraneous words.
Don’t be a George Will.
In the same vein, don’t use a $1 word if a 5 cent-word will do. Writing should be accessible, meant to inform, not a chance to show off how smart you are.
Keep it classy in the comments.
These rules will also apply to comments on articles as well. As with submissions, your full name is required to be posted with the comment. If it’s not, I’ll delete it. I put my name on what I write; you should, too.
If you have a good reason for wanting anonymity, send me an email and we’ll talk about it.
That’s what I’ve got for now, but I consider this an evolving process. There are going to be some missteps on my part and yours. I’m coming into this with good faith; I’m choosing to believe that you are, too. Hold me accountable if I muck it up; let me know when you disagree with my decisions. I’ll do the same.
Thanks for coming on this journey with me. I think we can together create something real.