What 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).
Now, 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?