Editorials

Janice D Hamlet. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

Editorials are articles in a newspaper or magazine (or, very rarely, stories over the air) that combine fact and opinion to interpret news and influence public opinion. They express the publisher or owner’s point of view and usually address current events or public controversies. As editorials are public, mass communicated expressions of public opinion, they are probably the most widely circulated opinion statements in society, regardless of whether they are widely read. If a newspaper has a political agenda, it, more than likely, would be visible on its editorial page. The influence of editorial content often depends on their influence on political or business elites.

Even though written by a single editor (and seldom signed), editorials express the opinion of the newspaper, magazine, or (again, rarely) broadcaster. Whatever specific opinions are being formulated, they tend to be derived from social interaction with management, rather than from personal experience or opinion of the editorial writer. As such, editorials offer a prominent function in the construction and expression of public opinion and an important addition to daily or weekly news publications.

Structure of Editorials

The sociocognitive foundation of editorials is reflected in how they are structured. For example, first person pronouns and stories about personal experiences are quite rare. Editorials are impersonal. They focus on public news events, and support general opinions focusing on social, economic, cultural, or political issues. Editorials usually take the form of an essay, using an argument to promote a specific point of view. Newspapers nearly always publish editorials in line with their publication’s editorial positions. An average editorial is approximately 750 words or less and typically includes (1) an introduction, body and conclusion like other news stories; (2) a brief explanation of the issue, especially complex ones; (3) a timely news angle; (4) opinions from the opposing viewpoint that refute directly the same issues the editorial addresses; (5) the concluding opinion of the publication, delivered in a professional manner (good editorials engage issues, not personalities and usually refrain from name-calling or other petty tactics of persuasion); (6) alternative solutions to the problem or issues being criticized; and (7) a solid and concise conclusion that powerfully summarizes the publication’s opinion. A goodeditorial expresses a clear opinion. If it is based on evidence, so much the better. It is contemporary, tackles recent events and issues, and attempts to formulate viewpoints based on objective analysis of happenings and conflicting opinions.

Types of Editorials

Although editorials generally fall into one or more of the four broad types mentioned above, not all editorials take sides on an issue. But they all serve to inform, to promote, to praise or blame, and/or to entertain. When the purpose is to inform, the editorial provides careful explanations about a complicated issue. The editorial writer fills in background information, forecasting the future and passing moral judgment. Editorials explain to their readers the importance of the day’s events, telling how a certain event came to pass, what factors counted in obtaining a change in governmental policy, and in what manner a new policy will affect the social and economic life of a community. To show an event’s further significance, an editorial may review its historic setting, relating to what has gone before. Alleditorials are designed to be persuasive—to sway readers to agree with the point of view expressed. Editorial writers often promote events, worthy causes and activities, and people, such as candidates for political office. They may praise political candidates or public servants for making good decisions or make them accountable for bad decisions and/or behavior.

Development

Through the eighteenth century, newspaper editors were primarily printers and had little time or ability to write editorial opinions. What opinions their papers carried were usually by contributors using pen names, although occasionally enterprising printer-editors would write letters to themselves, signing them “from a correspondent.” Seldom did the editor or other staff members actually write the opinion of the newspaper. The owner or owners might. More frequently, a newspaper’s editorials (although they were not yet called such) were contributed by writers not officially associated with the newspaper. These might include a sponsor who helped finance the paper but did not work for it. Because newspapers and pamphlets were the favored medium for writers wishing to publish their views, we can find there some of the most important opinion writing in early American history. Prime examples include such classics as John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” a series of essays that were published in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser in 1767 and were instrumental in the American colonies’ opposition to British parliamentary power; Thomas Paine’s “Crisis” papers, published in the Pennsylvania Journal in 1776 and 1777 that helped rally colonists’ morale during the American Revolution; and the “Federalist Papers,” published in the New York Independent Journal in 1787-88 that argued for adoption of the Constitution.

America’s first widely circulated “editorial” was also the nation’s first newspaper political cartoon. An illustration of a severed snake with the caption “JOIN or DIE,” is probably the most famous in American history. At the time the editorial was written in 1754, France was threatening to enlarge its territory and attacking American colonists. American printer, scientist, and writer Benjamin Franklin was considering how to rally American support. On May 9, Franklin published in his Pennsylvania Gazette a report of the French attack and included his views on the necessity of colonial union. To emphasize his point, he added the illustration of the divided snake. The eight parts of the snake represented the colonies. Although numerous newspapers reprinted the editorial and accompanying cartoon, Franklin’s plan for union was not accepted. During the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, many colonial newspapers reprinted the “Join or Die” snake cartoon, creating furor among British authorities. As tensions rose in later years, the cartoon reappeared. With the onset of the Revolution, Franklin’s cartoon proliferated in newspapers and other publications, becoming the most popular symbol of the revolt.

The Revolutionary War brought more activity by editorial contributors who were mostly agitators and political philosophers. Their writings frequently appeared in pamphlets and were published a section at a time in successive issues of newspapers. In the decade after independence, opinion writing remained the domain primarily of contributors to pamphlets.

During the 1780s the editorial in its modern form appeared. Whereas earlier opinion had been dispersed throughout the pages of newspapers, in the 1780s some papers began to separate their opinion statements from the news and to reserve a specific place for the former. Editors such as Noah Webster and James Cheetham began publishing a separate section of short paragraphs they had written. Other editors began to place a caption over the opinion, indicating that it was the work of the editor rather than a contributor.

According to Kenneth Rystrom (1993), in almost three centuries in which editors on the North American continent have been commenting on public issues, opinion has taken different roles. For the first century or so, editorial comment was sparse and generally intermixed with (often highly personalized) accounts of news. Then, as tension mounted between the colonies and Great Britain, editors began to comment on the issues. Indeed, journals were increasingly filled with opinion.

During the presidency of George Washington there was an increase in partisan opinion, thereby causing the nature of editorializing to change. During the early republic, party leaders saw fit to establish publications to express their party’s views. Few had any real expectations of earning money. But they stood to gain social prestige, literary reputation, and political influence, especially if their party won. The function of editorials, which began appearing during this era on designated editorial pages, was to argue the party line as forcefully as possible for the party faithful. The stronger and more emotional the tone of an editorial, the more likely it was to please the reader.

By the early 1800s, the editorial had an established position in many newspapers, but its effectiveness as a literary form was handicapped by several characteristics such as writers who abused institutions and people with whom they disagreed, and domination by politics. On the other hand, partisan editorial writers exhibited a number of viable strengths. Many held key positions in local, state, or national politics and therefore possessed an intimate knowledge of current issues. Some historians argue that because newspapers and politics were so closely connected, at no other time in the history of editorial writing was the newspaper’s editorial role of such critical importance in the nation’s political system. Rystrom’s history of the editorial page notes that Horace Greeley, whose New York Tribune was founded in 1841, made the editorial page a significant and respectable portion of the daily newspaper. Tribune editorials were written in a variety of different styles but mostly in the traditional literary format. They covered numerous topics and generally followed a consistent editorial policy. Many writers contributed to the thinking behind the editorials and the writing, although readers typically thought of the Tribune’s editorialpage as the product of one man, Greeley. Subscribers read the paper to see what Greeley thought. In the course of his journalistic career, Greeley espoused many liberal causes, including the abolition of slavery and capital punishment, communitarianism, socialism, improvement of working conditions, and free-soil homesteading.

In the two decades leading up to the Civil War, major issues got highly emotional and personalized in editorial columns. However, the Civil War brought new interest in news, and personalized editorial began to wane. A few voices still spoke out. Writers such as Charles Dana, E. L. Godkin and notable newspapermen like William Randolph Hearst, and Joseph Pulitzer editorialized strongly in the 1890s and early twentieth century. But the trend was clear: Editorial writers were retreating into anonymity at conservative newspapers increasingly owned by corporations. As the nation approached both world wars, feweditorial writers expressed enthusiasm for getting involved, but as soon as war was declared lost no time in volunteering their enthusiastic support.

By the early 1900s, the papers with the most popular and respected editorial pages were The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Boston Globe. However, faced with harsh economic revolution, newspaper readers demanded more news than opinions and insights and most of the nation’s anonymous editorial writers were unwilling or incapable of providing readers what they wanted. Consequently there was a sudden growth in byline columnists who were hired by newspapers and syndicated services to explain to readers what was going on, especially in the nation’s capital. The columns were mostly interpretative in nature but more lively and informative than the unsigned editorials that represented the views of corporate newspapers.

By the late nineteenth century, newspaper writers and editors—notably William Randolph Heart and Joseph Pulitzer—spoke out strongly for going to war with Spain, but most editors let the war zone issues go to the so-called muckrakers for magazines. Equally noteworthy, editorial writers continued their political endorsements of candidates, mostly Republicans. By the 1950s and 1960s, most newspapers had begun to disassociate with one political party although they continued to lean toward Republican candidates and agendas. In 1964, for the first time in the twentieth century, more newspapers supported a Democrat for President, Lyndon B. Johnson. In the aftermath of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, editorial writers also tended to support civil rights and social legislations passed during the Johnson administration.

The last decades of the twentieth century were characterized by some aggressiveness as well as passivity in editorial leadership. For example, the Vietnam War did not produce excitement in editorial pages, although Robert Lasch of the St. Louis (Missouri) Post-Dispatch won the Pulitzer Prize for several editorials written in 1965 questioning the U.S. role in Vietnam. During the Civil Rights Movement in America, editorial pages were not aggressive in their support or endorsements of civil rights issues. However, between 1957 and 1964, six Pulitzer Prizes were awarded for editorials on school desegregation or other civil rights issues. These prizes went to the Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News, Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, the Atlanta Constitution (Georgia), the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Pascagoula Chronicle(Mississippi), and the Lexington Advertiser (Mississippi).

Between 1969 and 1972, Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to three newspapers for editorials on civil rights issues: the Pine Bluff Commercial (Arkansas), the Gainesville Sun (Florida) and the Bethlehem Globe-Times (Pennsylvania).

By the late sixties, editorial writers returned to supporting Republican candidates and agendas, generally preferring Richard Nixon over Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey. The Watergate scandal eventually emerged, leading Nixon to resign from the presidency nearly two years following the break-in at the Watergate complex. A few newspapers, most notably The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times earned much credit for keeping the public centered on these events; however, it was done primarily through their news coverage rather than through their editorial leadership.

From the Reagan administration (1981-89) through the Bush administration (1989-93), neither news coverage of the press nor its editorial pages took a leadership role in crusading for national or international causes.

Recent Trends and Challenges

Recent years have been marked by increasing concentration of ownership by fewer groups and by the challenges of the Internet. In 2008 the Chicago Tribune became the first major newspaper in recent years to declare bankruptcy. In 2009, the Christian Science Monitor became the first nationally circulated newspaper to replace its daily print edition with online-only access. Print journalism has declined in recent years due to a contracting economy and the growth and popularity of the Internet, especially among young people who turn to it not only for their news but also for opinion.

The Internet has become an integral part of life in the twenty-first century and has certainly changed the face of journalism, with numerous applications, including news websites, such as Newsvine, Mixx, and C2NN, among numerous others. As a result, newspaper publishers are watching sales steadily decline as they continue to struggle to attract readers with different innovations such as online polls, web versions of the paper, audio and video, and the “comment” function that encourages web users to submit opinions about particular stories or blog entries. The Pew Internet and American Life Project Survey conducted in 2008 indicated that 70 percent of Internet users get their news from news websites. The web’s unique combination of characteristics, such as space capacity, flexibility, permanence, immediacy, and interactivity, make it a powerful medium for the practice of journalism.

Conclusion

The editorial page is the intellectual focal point of any newspaper. Editorials serve to provoke, debate, set agendas, crusade for change, persuade, and often challenge. While they express the opinion of media owners, editorial writers serve as keepers of the public conscience. The chief duty of its practitioners is to provide the information and guidance toward sound judgments that are essential to the healthy functioning of a democracy. Therefore, the editorial writer is challenged to draw fair conclusions from stated facts, basing them on the weight of the evidence and the publication’s concept of the public good.

According to a study, “The Newsroom Barometer,” conducted by Zogby International in 2008, about 85 percent of editors surveyed are optimistic about the future of newspapers. Forty percent of the editors believe online will be the most common way to read the news ten years from now, while 35 percent believe that print will reign supreme. The survey also found that two-thirds of the editors polled believe that opinion and analysis pages will grow in importance, but half believe that shareholders and advertisers present threats to editorial independence.

Although challenged by a declining economy and the popularity of the Internet, the newspaper editorial still has value due to its gatekeeping role, which is a challenge to maintain in an online environment where opinions are many and trust in the establishment news media is decreasing. Even as they migrate online, newspaper editorials can continue to hold a significant place in the media landscape by bringing readers strong, well-argued editorials reflecting solid research as well as maintaining the delicate balance between what readers need to know and want they want to read about.