Updated: Mar 13
Dear Asian Youth,
I am disappointed. As an avid news and op-ed reader, the past week has brought several op-eds to my attention that have made me question the efficacy and morality of opinion writing. About a week ago the Washington Post published an op-ed by Mark Thiessen with the headline “The Election is Over. Can We Finally Blame China For the Virus?” a blatantly xenophobic and racist article that irresponsibly places the insurmountable number of deaths in the U.S. on China rather than a botched Pandemic response by the U.S. federal government and certain groups open defiance of public health measures. In the past week, the Wall Street Journal published an equally controversial article titled, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” by Joseph Epstein. A blatantly sexist and misogynistic article criticizing Jill Biden who has an Ed.D. (a doctoral in education) from the University of Delaware.
Quite frankly, as a person who writes a lot of opinion articles on various topics, I am disappointed in these articles that were published by large, and what I considered mostly reputable news organizations. However, before I continue, I should probably distinguish the difference between a News report versus an Op-ed. News reports are written by journalists, these journalists are employed to go out into the field, collect information from first or second hand sources, documents, scientific reports, or actual people, and present the information in an article that presents the facts given to them from their sources, often doing the best they can to remain unbiased in language or presentation. Op-eds, on the other hand, are perspective pieces. These are designed to present perspectives on a certain topic or idea. They commonly are written by a person knowledgeable in a specific field (such as a politician, scientist, or expert) or can be written by an editorial (news) staff. There isn’t a need to collect sources or other outside information. The credibility for these articles are built upon the credibility and reputation of the op-ed writer.
Almost every news agency has both Opinion writers and Editorial Staff. Oftentimes, they can be one and the same. Opinion writers, however, may have some background in a specific field that they specialize in writing Op-eds on (for example, a former scientist being a science op-ed writer). There is also a distinction between Op-eds and news reports in newspapers. This is to clarify what articles are a presentation of facts and what is an opinion. However, even with these rules in place, I think there is still a moral responsibility that both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post failed to meet.
There is an age old quote, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I think of this quite a bit, especially when social media and online digital spaces have given large platforms and followings to many people. When the words of a social media influencer, a pop star, or a politician can be seen, heard, and read by thousands if not millions of people, they should take extra precaution in what is said. News agencies are no different. The saturation of mass media, and the lack of regulation has not only allowed for great democratization of information, but has also also led to the virulent spread of disinformation as well. News agencies maintain their reputation and credibility by holding themselves to high standards of efficacy when it comes to sourcing information. When journalists and reporters report on information and events they include: who said what, who did what, and where was this information found. These age-old rules are what have held up large news agencies such as the New York Times, Washington Post and yes, the Wall Street Journal for decades- and that hasn’t changed. The New York Times often is considered an archive for much of American history is due to its reputation and longevity as a new organization. However, there is another story to be said about Op-eds and Opinion articles.
Opinion pieces are not held up to the same standard that a news report is held to. This is because op-eds are not news, they’re someone's opinion. The accountability for any misinformation or issues with an article is placed solely on the opinion writer. However, I think that's where there is a moral and ethical failing.
Large news agencies such as The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post have thousands of followers and readers. They are given a lot of power in our society as credible news organizations. While I understand that there is an established precedent that opinion articles should never be taken as objective fact within the world of journalism, I think news organizations have a responsibility for who they give a platform to.
Journalism is for the people- whether its op-eds, or editorials. Journalism is protected in this country because it is one of the sacred pillars of democracy. The ability to tell the truth without fear of persecution. Op-eds are part of this to a certain extent. While op-eds are not objective truth, they are supposed to help people develop or see a topic or issue from a certain point of view, even when that point of view may not be popular. And while news agencies are mostly removed from any accountability for op-eds they publish this still doesn’t mean that they aren’t free from accountability from the people.
Back in June, in the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement the then New York Times Opinions editor James Bennet published a controversial essay by Senator Tom Cotton that essentially stated that the U.S. Military should be used to put down protests across the country. Writer Kevin M. Lerner Elaborates on this in his article From op-eds to editorials, readers find it difficult to distinguish fact from opinion:
“The New York Times opinion editor James Bennet resigned recently after the paper published a controversial opinion essay by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton that advocated using the military to put down protests.
The essay sparked outrage among the public as well as among younger reporters at the paper. Many of those staffers participated in a social media campaign aimed at the paper’s leadership, asking for factual corrections and an editor’s note explaining what was wrong with the essay. Eventually, the staff uprising forced Bennet’s departure.”
This incident highlighted that there is, in fact, a level of accountability to news organizations and the material they decide to publish. Bennet had decided to publish an essay from a Tom Cotton which was inherently dangerous to the people. The essay justified violence and the use of military force on American citizens exercising their right to protest. This sparked major outrage that a reputable news organization such as the New York Times would publish such an article justifying military violence. Eventually, pushback from staff at the New York times led to the resignation of Bennet from his post.
Journalists and news organizations have a responsibility to the people. A responsibility to deliver the facts and truth to the people. A responsibility to help educate and bring awareness to issues happening within our country and world. This obligation to the people is why news and news agencies are so incredibly important to our society. However, when news organizations publish articles endangering a group of people or reinforcing dangerous standards within our society, I believe that it shows an absolute failure in an organization's ability to live up to its function in society.
When Washington Post published an article that was clearly xenophobic and racist towards the Asian community, regardless of who it was written by, the choice to publish such an article endangers thousands of Asian Americans across the country facing increased violence and hatred due to racial scapegoating from our own federal government. When the Wall Street Journal published an article baselessly criticizing Jill Biden over her educational credentials, that highlighted and reinforced sexist and misogynistic attitudes within our society which inherently endanger women.
This is what brings me back to the quote “with great power comes great responsibility.” When a news organization decides to publish an opinion article that is sexist, misogynistic, xenophobic or racist, even under the guise of being an opinion, that organization has failed in its function within our society to hold those in power accountable and protect those that are vulnerable. Something that any major democratic institution should do. And while we should always defend freedom of the press, this doesn’t mean that we can’t hold these institutions accountable for their actions. Readers should always be critical of anything they read, research the information behind a story, the background of the author, and intended audience, and message. And while large news organizations attempt to keep “balance” within their writing, there should be a moral line drawn in the sand when it comes to the endangerment of a marginalized identity or group of people.
- Chris Fong Chew
Cover Photo Source: BBC