Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Editorials: Sound Off or Sound Like an Expert?

All right, maybe you've gotten the chance to do an editorial. You're thrilled, right? After all, this is simple. Editorial = opinion. All you have to do is put your opinion in the allotted number of words, and you're done. Easy money.

Not quite.

I always thought that, too. Then I had the fortune to have to take a class on editorials in graduate school. If I remember nothing else, I took away the fact that editorials are more than the rantings of an opinionated writer. Rather, a good editorial shows the reason behind the opinion. That's right, you have to change your formula to: Editorial = informed opinion.

Say you want to do an editorial on the dangers of fluoride in city water supplies. Option 1 is to spout off:

"Let's face it; fluoride is bad for us. There have been lots of studies proving it, but not one supporting its value."

Aside from the problem of how you're going to get an entire column out of that, it sounds weak. It's just your opinion, so why should readers pay attention? In fact, at this point, you sound like an enraged kook (all right, I wrote it...so I sound like an enraged kook). Try Option 2:

"Many cities put fluoride in their water supplies because someone out there has gotten the idea it helps us.

"A Stanford study by Hawkins and Cladell has proven just the opposite. They studied five cities with fluoride in their water supply and compared them to five cities without fluoride.

"The cities that used fluoride had a 57% higher cancer rate than those that didn't. In fact, their findings indicate that fluoride is more toxic than lead. Yet, there's not one study supporting the benefits of fluoride to teeth when taken internally."

Okay, there's no Stanford study. I made that up. Don't do that when you're writing a real editorial. However, you can see how much stronger the editorial text is when you have facts to back up your opinion.

Even from here, I can hear the wheels turning in your head. What about all the writers and broadcasters who publish columns or spout off on TV backed up by nothing but their own thoughts? They're professionals, and they're not "supporting" their opinion.

True, but who do you trust more--someone who spouts off their opinion, or someone who spouts off their opinion with seven different studies to back them up? Of course; the person with facts. There's no reason to listen to the other person unless you already agree with them and want an ego boost.

In the course of finding facts to back you up, you may find there are none. Or, you may find that you change your own mind because opposing evidence is more compelling. That's okay. Journalism is about finding the truth, and that means not lying to ourselves, either.

Make that part of your column.


nyscof said...

Unfortunately, too many well-paid editorialistss just spout the opinions of dental unions without taking the time or effort to find the supporting evidence.

They assume dentists have done this already do, more often than not, they support water fluoridation.

Those that do their research come out opposed to fluoridation.

However, editors have another beast to keep tame - advertisers.

I don't think advertisers such as Procter and Gamble and Colgate would be too pleased with any editorial or article condemning fluoride in any way.

Oh, they won't stop you from writing your piece. But they may say, we'll pull our advertising for this issue - which could be death for some newspapers.

andy d said...

The fluoride piece was simply an example...perhaps a poorly chosen one given its controversial nature. You're right, though. The journalistic truth I speak of in the post is all too often compromised by the economic needs of the publication.