Paul H. Johnson: When op-eds cross the line

BY PAUL H. JOHNSON

Published October 22, 2007

What kind of scrutiny do opinion pieces get? This question came up last week after the Daily ran a viewpoint by LSA freshman Emily Michels about Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize (Inconvenient and unworthy, 10/18/2007).

The piece elicited strong criticism: "I hope not to see another article of this poor quality again," one reader commented. A critic said it played fast and loose with the facts and was beneath the dignity of the Daily to publish.

For the purposes of this piece, I concede the readers' point. Michel's piece was one-sided. Gore never really claimed he invented the Internet: His opponents claimed he did and their efforts to repeatedly question Gore's truthfulness during the 2000 presidential campaign was probably one reason why he didn't win enough votes in the electoral college to become president.

Editorial Page Editor Imran Syed says that he and his staff do fact check opinion pieces randomly to guard against plagiarism, but unless a fact on its face is obviously untrue, they don't regularly examine every assertion made in an opinion piece. If you feel a piece might be plagiarized or have errors you can also contact me and I'll look into it.

Syed said he knew Michels was stretching the truth when she said Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. "I knew she was taking it out of context," Syed said. "It probably wasn't fair, but we do that all the time." Therefore, while the assertions made by Michels would have no place in a news story unchallenged, they do have a place on the opinion page.

The Daily wants a wide variety of viewpoints on its opinion page and I applaud that effort. The Daily should try to publish a broad spectrum of viewpoints, both conservative and liberal and from a wide range of readers from students and faculty to members of the greater Ann Arbor community.

Just because the Daily wants a variety of opinions on its pages doesn't mean that writers can say whatever they want on the opinion page (well, with the possible exception of me, since the editors of the Daily are not allowed to edit my column for content), but it does mean that the standards of fairness are more relaxed on opinion pages than on the news pages.

Why do opinion pages get more leeway than news pages? Well, you can't necessarily fact check a person's opinion or a person's interpretation of a fact. And while I have no doubt that Michels's piece intended to knock Gore's esteem in the eyes of her Michigan peers, that's OK with me.

In fact, the Daily's motive in encouraging this kind of robust debate is simple - if you see an opinion you disagree with, respond in kind. In Monday's and today's paper, the Daily ran letters criticizing Michels's piece. That's exactly the kind of response Syed wanted. So if you see something in the paper that upsets you, write about it. Don't let it go unquestioned. Contact me or write a letter to the editor.

A news story a couple of weeks ago described the tryouts of Michigan students for Playboy Magazine's "Girls of the Big Ten" issue (In A2, dreams of gloss and glory, 10/09/2007).

Staff writer Kimberly Chou respected the privacy of the women in the article by referring to them only by their first and middle names. And there was good reason for that. One subject of the article, Amber, found herself the subject of too much attention, as some people were able to figure out her full name by the use of her first and middle names in the article.

The Daily uses anonymous sources sparingly, as it should. As well, Amber said she didn't realize the reporter was still interviewing her when she was quoted as saying "I skipped three classes this morning for this." Amber said she was just being witty and instead felt like the quote came across as her not taking class seriously.

I think this was just a misunderstanding between source and reporter. When interviewing people on campus, all reporters should be aware that not everyone knows how the news business works and therefore should ensure as much as practicable that their subjects will know how their names will be used, especially in potentially sensitive stories.

In most cases it will be clear when greater sensitivity is warranted - when interviewing crime victims or family members who lost a loved one or when the publication of a source's name will likely expose that person to probable public ridicule. On the other hand, if the source is a public official, the burden should be on the public official to realize that his or her words can make their way into the newspaper, but that doesn't mean that a public official's words can be twisted beyond recognition.

I'd like to know what you think. Let me know.

Paul H. Johnson is the Daily's public editor. He can be reached at publiceditor@umich.edu.