I have spent almost four years in the Daily’s Opinion section, sharing my takes with the Tufts community. This week, I started wondering why it matters, after a friend of mine shared with me that he doesn’t normally read opinion writing. He prefers data, numbers and objective information from which he is free to draw his own conclusions. For many, opinion writing can seem like a distraction in the pursuit of truth rather than a step along the way. It is a fair criticism — why should you take time out of your day to read the arguments and analysis of others when you have the education and critical thinking skills to interpret the facts on your own?
While news and opinion writing differ in their fundamental goals, even in news reporting, there are always choices to make. The inclusion of certain facts over others introduces bias into the reporting process. Even in long-form pieces, we still face constraints about what facts to include, in what order and what language we will use to describe them. Geneva Overholser of the Washington Post uses the example of Bill Clinton’s 1997 speech on race and affirmative action, showing discrepancies in headlines from many major news outlets after the event. Was President Clinton “declaring a plan to battle racism,” or “defending preferences for colleges?” Media outlets made the choice to report on the contents of the speech quite differently, even in their news coverage.
This paradox should not discourage us from seeking objectivity altogether. Providing transparency about our own biases and explaining the methodology behind our analysis can also be useful. Science and journalism use similar processes to uncover facts, and journalists should be just as rigorous as scientists about disclosing our assumptions. As for readers, it is important to understand that no matter the genre, bias is impossible to avoid. Especially now, when technology outpaces our ability to verify facts, even the most basic assumptions cannot be taken for granted. We should scrutinize every piece of media we consume.
Opinion writing plays a critical role in providing a narrative. Steven R. Weisman, the chief diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times, explained, “If you have to decide who is right, then you must do more reporting.” He recognized the need for the deeper engagement that opinion writing provides. So today, in my last column for the Daily, I want you to know I have appreciated your readership as I attempted to discover the truth.