Define “columnist” and give two examples

vgr circleWhat is a “column” in a mainstream newspaper?

People ask me that question all of the time, usually in the midst of a conversation — face to face or online — that goes something like this.

“Will you please take a look at this story? It is so biased. It is so one-sided. How does a reporter get away with writing something like that?”

So I look the story up and it turns out that it is not a news story at all — it’s a column. I try to explain this and the other person often replies, “What’s the difference between a ‘column’ and a ‘news story’? So ‘reporters’ have to be balanced and fair and a columnist doesn’t have to play by those rules?”

I hear this all the time because I have, for 17-plus years, been a columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service. However, when I first started writing my On Religion column, I was also a reporter at the Denver Rocky Mountain News. That was really hard to explain. I was a reporter when my stories had a byline, but I was a columnist when my columns had a column logo. It was confusing to readers and, frankly, I could understand their confusion.

Here’s why I bring this up. The other day, I took Father Steve Gushee — an Episcopal priest who is a news columnist for The Palm Beach Post and the Cox News Service — to task because of his practice of writing columns that are totally based on his own opinions and hardly ever contain information from other sources. If he quotes someone, you can rest assured that — 99.9 percent of the time — this person is going to be in complete agreement with Father Gushee.

A GetReligion reader dropped me an email to ask why I thought a “columnist” needed to write anything other than personal opinion. Isn’t that what columnists do?

That’s a great question. Truth is, there are all kinds of columnists and most of them operate under rules that they negotiate with their editors.

For example, most columnists write in the first-person voice. However, I hardly ever do that and, long ago, a Scripps Howard editor and I made the decision that it would be better if I focused on a kind of “news analysis” style of writing — rarely drifting into the “I think” mode. That was fine with me. I think that other people are far more interesting than me and I try to write columns that are like conversations between my insights and those of the person (or persons) I am quoting. I almost always end with a quotation from the other person, because that is the interesting, authoritative voice that I want my readers to remember on this topic.

But there’s no rule that says this is what a columnist needs to do. There are columnists who write highly personal, opinionated material day after day after day. I could never do that — even in a weekly column — without going crazy. But every now and then I do write a first-person piece. But even then, I like to draw on information and insights from other people (even when writing a tribute to my own father after his funeral).

Thus, I write a column that many people do not think of as a column, because I try not to slap people in the face with my point of view. But it is a column and it does reflect my beliefs and my priorities, even though I often write about people with whom I disagree. Still, I do my best to handle that person’s information and beliefs in a way that is fair and accurate. However, I am writing about what they have to say because I think it is interesting and newsworthy. So, yes, I tend to twitch when I pick up a newspaper and see one of my columns published with a simple byline on top that does not indicate that the material underneath it is an analysis column.

Like I said, I can understand why all of this confuses people.

I mean, read Father Gushee’s bitter column on conflicts inside the global Anglican Communion, conflicts that have existed for 30 years but spun out of control following the consecration of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire (top photo).

ENS Nzimbi Primate Kenya medNow, read a recent column in the Memphis Commercial Appeal by the award-winning writer David Waters (whose work landed him in the Scripps Howard Hall of Fame). Like Gushee, Waters is writing about a conflict that has local, regional, national and global implications — but he is focusing on events in his own backyard, using the news hook provided by a visit by Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya.

Frankly, this reads like a news report. But Waters is a columnist, one who has chosen to include information and insights from others.

“Our goal is for the Episcopal Church to sort of see the error of its ways and reunite with all of us,” said Rev. Steve Carpenter, a former Episcopal priest and now associate pastor of St. Peter’s. “But if that doesn’t happen, the goal is to establish a single Anglican communion in America. Right now, all of us who have joined the Anglican movement are sort of free-floating. Establishing an Anglican diocese with a bishop here in America would give all of us a new home.”

The Anglicans who met in Memphis said they feel more spiritual kinship with their Anglican brothers 8,000 miles away than they do with their Episcopal cousins next door.

“This isn’t just about homosexuality or same-sex unions. This is about the authority of Scripture,” said Jeff Garrety, a member of All Saints Anglican Church in Jackson. The Episcopal Church and its leaders have diminished that authority.”

Does Waters agree or disagree with the rebel Episcopalians he is writing about?

Does he back support their efforts to align with the majority of Anglicans worldwide?

That’s rather hard to tell. But if your local newspaper could only have one religion columnist, would you rather have a Gushee or a Waters?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dan Berger

    A point of information: the Anglican Mission in America is a mission of the Province of Rwanda, not Nigeria. Nigeria’s mission is called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

    Otherwise I thought it was a good column; like TMatt, the writer allowed his subjects to speak for themselves.

  • Deborah

    Hi tmatt,

    I always thought that columnists were really essayists. These people write opinion pieces or analysis of something and it was printed on the editorial page, where the paper printed it’s own opinion on a matter. They began to be called columnists because that is how their writings were printed – in a column format in the newspaper. But they are really essayists.

    I wonder if the confusion you talk about exists because we seem to have lost the words “essay” and “essayist”. But, that is how I always explain the difference. I also think that the modern day essayist is the blogger whose writings are on the web.

    Nice posting, btw

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  • charlie

    it sounds like you don’t like gushee because he’s liberal and you’re basically trying to justify your opinion. in others words, you’ve got an a priori thing going on, but you’re trying to make it seem a postierori. which is fine. but be honest.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Charlie,

    Terry laid out his case clearly. You make wild allegations that are unsubstantiated.

    How about you try again — substantiating your attack?

    Did you read both columns? They are very different — one is one-sided opinion and one is reportage. You can prefer one over the other but your attack on Terry doesn’t hold up.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    CHARLIE:

    I read a wide variety of columnists and many, many of them are liberal. I work in DC, for Pete’s sake and would never, ever miss E.J. Dionne.

    How can one work in mainstream journalism and not learn how to tell the difference between a good liberal columnist and a BAD liberal columnist? And, yes, there are good conservative columnists and bad conservative columnists.

    Also, try to remember that there are people who are liberal on some issues and conservative on others. The world is a complex place, Charlie. Please consider what people have to say before you accuse them of dishonesty.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    It just occurred to me that Charlie has a pattern of ad hominem attacks. Perhaps he should revisit our commenting policy.

  • Martha

    Yeah, I don’t mind columnists ranting on about their pet topics as long as I *know* they’re columnists – it’s when it’s supposed to be reportage but is really ‘my favourite cause and the nasty fascists who oppose it’ that gets my goat.

    Well, that and the automatic tagging of everyone who disagrees with you as a ‘fascist’. Example? Comments flying fast and furious on a blog I visit, in which the liberal states (in the middle of a long diatribe against the horrible, no good, homophobic Bishop Akinola)that “But any institution telling anyone over the age of 18 that they can or cannot have sex is pretty fascist to me.” This in reply to someone who posed the example of a Christian college which requires all of its students to refrain from fornication.

    *sigh* Y’know, there was a time when words meant something…

  • Jerry

    I don’t really have a preference between columnist styles. I’m more interested in reading well written ones from which I either learn something or am challenged to think about something. Of course, I also like to read columnists who have the good sense to agree with my biases and pre-conceptions:-)

  • http://www.streetprophets.com pastordan

    Gushee, because he correctly states the doctrine of the Episcopal Church – by which all the breakaway pastors and congregations agreed to be bound by – rather than quoting without analysis the self-interested statements of a partisan.

    That was difficult.

  • Harris

    If the purpose of the writing is to move the product, then obviously the one who gets the emotional juices of the reader going.

    This may account for why a style that plays in Palm Beach may not be the one that plays say, in Waco or Colarado Springs. The audience is a far more important determiner for the suitability of a given columnist.

    This, in turn, explains why the local paper runs TMatt columns in the religion section without really labeling them “columns” and why we enjoy so many insightful (cough) conservative columnists on our editorial page.

    In Grand Rapids….

  • Eric W

    I agree with Jerry, who wrote:

    I don’t really have a preference between columnist styles. I’m more interested in reading well written ones from which I either learn something or am challenged to think about something. Of course, I also like to read columnists who have the good sense to agree with my biases and pre-conceptions:-)

    FWIW, to follow up on your earlier article on Judaism, here is an example of Jews committing self-genocide. The greatest form of anti-Semitism is to promote that there is no valid basis for the Jewish religion or people, and that is what this does. How such Reform (or other) Jews can continue as Jews with such double-mindedness baffles me: Jewish Encyclopedia: Doubts about Moses

  • Martha

    Regarding pastordan’s comment, I’m not an Episcopalian so I’m going on what I read, but it seems to me that the side Fr. Gushee is on is basing its actions on “The Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church” as the be-all and end-all. Which leads to some amusement, as they are insisting that man-made documents are inviolate and inviolable and must be adhered to in every jot and tittle, whereas the Scriptures and Tradition must be interpreted in light of modern views and can be changed about or abandoned as desired. Word of God? Let’s not be too nitpicky about what that means, we all have our own opinions, no point in fighting over definitions. Word of Man? Stick rigidly to the letter or we’ll see you in court!

    Myself, I think the orthodox side should say “Fine, we see that what’s really important to you here is property and real estate. Have it and welcome.” and shake the dust of TEC off their feet. Just sayin’, is all.

  • Dennis Colby

    An interviewer once asked Walter Benjamin how he had become one of the best writers of his generation, and Benjamin replied that it was by strenuously avoiding use of the first-person singular.

    That’s not a bad idea for many columnists, who seem to show no interest for reference points beyond their own.

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  • steve wintermute

    Terry, good comments. I often get the same thing …some readers tell me “I read your article….” I no longer bother to correct them unless they complain how biased it was. Then I try to explain that I write an “opinion” column, namely mine, and that if everyone agreed with my opinions, I wouldn’t be doing my job correctly. But as some people never “get” religion, some never “get” opinion columns either. My other peeve is that readers will want me to write about a subject that rightly belongs in a feature page column and not the op-ed page where I am, and then I have to explain the difference between the two. It gets to be a drag explaining it all sometimes. BTW, I still read your column every Saturday in the Knoxville paper.

  • mjbubba

    My beef is with opinion pieces that are buried in the news sections and look like news articles.
    Regarding David Waters, he was great in the mid-1990s. Then, after awards and honors, they expanded his columns to three times per week. That was too much Waters. After a while, his columns became less a presentation of stories and more a presentation of Waters’ opinions. Since he is a left-leaning Methodist in a very conservative market, many of his preachy columns that exhorted us to ecumenism and universalism were not well-received. After a few years, the Commercial Appeal promoted him and dropped his column back to weekly. His writing is much better now; I presume because he has more time to focus on stories and to polish his work. He has a very nice column in today’s paper, that tells a very nice story and does not ignore the religious aspect of an activity that is not obviously a matter of faith.
    http://www.commercialappeal.com/mca/local/article/0,2845,MCA_25340_5298044,00.html