The relationship between Americans, newspapers and editorial freedom is a tangled mess of a story, with blood and ink dripping slowly down its winding pages. Evidence suggests this story began in 1690 when Benjamin Harris published the first and only edition of Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, in the then-colonial town of Boston. The publication was shut down by British authorities a mere four days after its initial installment for failing to obtain a publishing license from the government.
The next American newspaper wasn’t printed until years later when, in 1704, the governor approved The Boston News-Letter, which was heavily subsidized and censored by the British government. Successive colonial papers received the same treatment, with several editors and publishers jailed when authorities did not agree with their views.
Of course, that all changed in 1765 when colonial residents finally decided to act against the dictator-like presence of the British, starting a revolution that was heard around the world.
During that time, America’s founding fathers instituted the Bill of Rights, with the First Amendment reading as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (emphasis mine).
Thereafter, media in the United States was subject to censorship only through the lens of our first amendment; strict government censorship became a thing of older times or of other nations.
With the spirit of a free press still fresh in the minds of citizens, the initial staff of The Michigan Daily printed its first edition on Sept. 29, 1890. Since that day, the Daily has remained editorially independent from all outside influences, including (and especially) the University.
But without any external influence, how do you decide what stories to report and how to frame them? And how have those people’s decisions in the past affected their successors who make similar editorial decisions today?
The evolution of newspapers and journalism has come a long way. As the sensationalism that filled the pages of the Penny Press decreased, journalists began to focus more on facts and objectivity. During the early 19th century, so called “news” and “editorial commentary” were often mixed together within one article, giving readers a sense of how the writers felt about certain topics and why they felt that way. Toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, journalism became a prestigious career with a code of ethics to follow.
The first rule? Objectivity.
Today, objectivity is the goal most journalists strive toward when reporting the facts to the public. The Society of Professional Journalists stresses objectivity and other journalistic ethics in its code of ethics, which is well known by reporters across the nation.
With the evolution of objectivity came the natural separation of “news” and “editorial” pages. News reporters were striving for objective reporting when relaying facts to the public, while editors from the opinion section wrote stories in a purposefully unobjective format.
At the Daily, a complete separation between the incompatible sections didn’t happen until the early 1990s. In an interview with the Daily, David Schwartz, a former news reporter turned editorial page editor (February 1990-January 1991) noted, “There was a tension during my first couple years of the paper between those of us who thought journalism should be about objectively reporting the news and others who thought there’s no such thing as being objective. (The idea was that) everyone has their biases, and we might as well own up to what our biases are, and have the entire paper — including the news section — be activist.”
During that time, all Daily staffers were allowed to become editorial board members, potentially creating a conflict of interest with regard to objective news reporting. Schwartz and several other staffers disagreed with the sentiment that the entire newspaper should be activist. Objectivity was a goal reporters around the globe were working toward, and the Daily was not about to be left behind in the world of journalism. Eventually, during the 1990 editor elections, objectivity won and activism was reserved solely for the Opinion section; the News section would stick to reporting the news without clear social and political biases.
With the roles of each section agreed upon, the Daily’s editorial page began focusing on issues in which they could actually create a lasting effect. 1995-1996 Editorial Page Editor Julie Becker said in an interview with my co-EPE, Derek Wolfe, “One of the things that we really tried to do was move away from talking, especially about international issues, but also about national and domestic, because not only were they not going to be solved on the pages of the Daily, but we were not the most qualified people to be writing about that sort of thing.”
By refocusing with a narrowed lens on the University community, Page 4 transformed into more than just a group of students whining about news well beyond the scope of Ann Arbor. With both University officials and students reading our thoughts through a critical lens, editorials became wired with facts and reporting of our own.
“It was very good for me to really have to defend my positions and really think about what my opinions were and why they were what they were and learn to support them with facts,” mentioned Becker while talking about what the Opinion page taught her.
I first joined the Daily’s Opinion page during my sophomore year of college. As a newbie, I never quite realized how much journalistic skill goes into writing factually accurate and poignant arguments. My time as an assistant editor, then senior editor, then editorial page editor has taught me that there’s more to opinion writing than just letting others know what you think. You have to show your audience why your ideas are the right ideas. It’s like writing an argumentative essay for thousands of professors who are sometimes cruel and unjust.
And while much of the criticism toward Page 4 is directed toward the Daily in general, the Opinion staff and editors often face the weight of their decisions alone.
“We don’t have a professional staff of journalists around trying to sort through that stuff, so we all had to do it ourselves and teach each other, which I think increases the pressure on you, the sense of consequence for failure, the fear that you’re doing it wrong. It all weighs on you really heavily,” Stephen Henderson, 1991-1992 editorial page editor and current editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, noted in an interview.
Yet we bear the weight and continue to comment on stories that our staff deem important on campus. The losses are remembered as lessons and the wins as prideful memories. It’s a constant struggle of reflection and analysis, but it’s a struggle with which the Opinion staff will forever — gladly — remain entangled.
Aarica Marsh can be reached at email@example.com.