Opinions are everywhere. Here’s how LA Times, New York Times writers and editors distinguish their point-of-view journalism
Points of view — personal, diverse and grounded in facts — enrich journalism by giving audiences perspectives that challenge their world views, four eminent newspaper writers and editors said Wednesday in a discussion about how journalism can affect and reflect public opinion.
The National Press Club Journalism Institute on Wednesday hosted a virtual program, “Being heard: How to use your voice so people listen” — featuring L.A. Times editorial page editor Sewell Chan, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein, and L.A. Times columnist Erika Smith.
“I think of my writing as making arguments, and making an argument from a clearly stated point of view,” said Hannah-Jones, who won the Pulitzer for commentary for her role in The New York Times’ 1619 Project. “But nothing that I write is just simply what I think about something. It is using a lot of research, reporting, data to make an argument, but it certainly is not reporting with no point of view.”
Newspapers, while nurturing such point-of-view writing, need to diversify those points of view. Chan noted that The Los Angeles Times owners a century ago had a history of city boosterism coupled with a patronizing attitude toward communities of color.
“Our newsroom, our whole organization, didn’t fully catch up with the communities of L.A. as it is now,” he said. “This is a majority people-of-color state, our school system is majority students of color, our county is half-Latino alone. And we’re in that process of catching up and making sure that there is some rough representation, parity-wise, in terms of the voices that we choose to amplify and elevate.”
Other key points from the discussion:
The role of opinion in journalism
“We, as an industry, are shifting back toward more of a reported type of column, type of opinion piece, which I can’t help but see as a reaction to the uprising of social media, which gave everybody an opinion,” Smith said. “As an industry, we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We have to not only report our pieces … but also we have to move the story forward. I think the real goal and the real use of opinion is to basically move the story forward, offer some interpretation, and offer to peel back the layers.”
Avoiding ruts that shut down voices
“In this business, we become attached to certain formats and certain ways of doing things,” Silverstein said. “But everything that we do is leaving certain things out.” He said The New York Times Magazine editors try to make sure that certain patterns and decisions don’t get repeated time after time, “so that you’re creating the kind of environment where multiple voices and … points of view are brought to the table, so that you’re getting a full picture of the country, of the world, of all the stuff that we cover.”
The role of reporting and facts in opinion
“The most powerful arguments are built on a strong bedrock of reporting, evidence and research,” Chan said. “A great opinion editor tries to always ask, especially in my world — the op-ed world — what are the strongest possible objections to this argument, what are your fiercest critics likely to say, and how can you pre-empt or anticipate or address those questions?”
The value of point of view
“My strong feeling is that even in stories that claim to be straightforward reporting, point of view is obviously such an important determinant of what the story is being told,” Silverstein said. “But you can kind of turn that up and down; you can modulate how much of an effect it has on the story and how it comes across. And sometimes, turning it up and really kind of trying to dramatize the point of view of a particular writer or a particular vantage is something that makes a piece stronger, and makes it in some cases more truthful as well.”
Identifying an audience
“I have no interest in just preaching to the converted, so to speak. I always try to look for opinion pieces or stories that kind of go against the grain in some way,” Smith said. “I just look for something that allows me to tell a new nuance in the story and to get at a bigger truth.”
“It’s interesting when you say you don’t want to preach to the choir because I think the hallmark of my work is showing the choir that they’re not actually in my choir,” Hannah-Jones said. “I never think of my work being toward a Trump supporter; my work is for a Hillary Clinton supporter, who actually is not nearly as progressive on issues of race and equality as he or she would think. … I want to really surprise people who think they know the story and think they are good people — who think they’re on the right side of this — and expose the ways that they’re not.”
The need for new voices
“I want to go past the usual suspects,” Chan said. “I want to talk to people whose lived experiences are part of their expertise. Someone said to me recently, instead of going to a labor economist to talk about the plight of low-wage service workers, why are we not actually commissioning work from someone who’s a low-wage service worker. And we did exactly that. And I was really, really proud of that outcome.”
Pushing a unique perspective
“What I tell young journalists of color and other marginalized groups all the time is you can control one thing and that’s your own excellence,” Hannah-Jones said. “I’ve been able to have success because of the standards of rigor I have from my own journalism and using my unique perspective to produce journalism that other people in that newsroom were not producing. But it’s a risk … this industry will push you out if you don’t conform to what it is that they want.”
This program is one of an ongoing series of free conversations. Click here to see our upcoming programs, or to watch a recording of a previous event. Please contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions.