Heather Bailey column photo

Heather Bailey 

This is not an article. I know it’s appearing in a newspaper, printed on newsprint (or on the website of a newspaper), but it’s not an article.

I’m saying this because I, and my co-workers and journalistic brothers and sisters around the globe, are of the opinion that many people do not understand the difference between an article and an opinion piece.

An article is a factual, researched, unbiased write-up of the facts about a situation, person or event. This piece is a commentary — a column — and written with no expectation of lack of bias or opinion. This is what I think. This is not an article.

Sometimes this misunderstanding is harmless, such as when we get told, ‘Hey, loved your article,’ when referencing a column.

Sometimes, it’s mildly irritating, such as when someone says, “I can’t believe you published such a biased article,” when referring to an opinion piece, which is not an article and is purposefully biased.

Sometimes it’s downright dangerous, such as when readers turn the paradigm around and don’t want to accept facts because those facts disagree with their own opinion. This has been the case more and more on the national news front, but it can be just as problematic when it comes to reporting local issues.

Some years ago I was asked to meet with someone about a story. In the course of the conversation, I was told over and over how many people had had a negative experience with a certain public agency. When I asked the person I was speaking to, to go on the record, or to put me in touch with one of these “many, many” people who had this shared experience, I was told that no one would go on the record. I was asked, “Why can’t you just say it happened?”

Because if no one is going to be on the record, if I don’t have legitimate sources willing to put their names behind their accusations, then I have no basis in fact to report. It’s hearsay. Therefore, it’s not news. It’s not an article.

A corollary of this relates to social media, which are not articles either. Now, I’m not going to drag social media; I use it too, we all do. But, keep in mind, when you are reading individual accounts of meetings or events on social media, that they aren’t news articles either. All of us have had the experience of attending something like a public meeting, taking meticulous notes, crafting a factual news article and then seen accounts on social media that include half-truths and misinformation. This is especially true when a decision has gone against an individual’s wishes. 

And we watch as those opinions are given greater credence than the truth, because the truth doesn’t fit the narrative. And that is so incredibly disheartening. As a journalist, it burns me out more quickly than the long hours and questionable pay.

In this newspaper, we put “Commentary” or “Editorial” in front of opinion pieces. We also, generally, put them together on page 5, space allowing, so they are physically separated from the news articles, as much as they are psychologically separate.

Now, we are human, so it’s possible that from time to time we will make a mistake. Maybe report something that isn’t accurate. When that happens, we do a mea culpa and publish the correct fact at the bottom of page 5. When was the last time you saw a correction on social media?

So please, learn the difference between an article and an opinion piece/commentary/letter to the editor/editorial. Because we work hard to bring you truth and facts.

And that isn’t just an opinion.

Heather Bailey is the editor of The Windsor Times, which is a sister paper to Sonoma West Times & News.

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