To The Editor:

A recent article on The Millstone‘s site objects to the endorsement of one party over another in The Ottawa Citizen during the recent election campaign. As I am not currently “connected,” via any social medium, I am unable to post a response to that item – which appears here: I would, however, like to respond to the writer’s concerns and hope you will publish this letter by means of doing so. My apologies to Sietze Praamsma for not responding directly on the existing post.

As suggested in the article, the act of a newspaper endorsing a political candidate is not in the least unusual; is, in fact, a long-standing tradition going back a very long way indeed; and is practiced all over the world, not just in Canada. It’s the reason why it was once – and still is – very common, even in very small towns, to have two newspapers: one Whig- and one Tory-supporting. This was the case in Ottawa for many years when The Ottawa Journal was still extant [ask Val!], and, in my opinion, is not a problem as long as the “hard news” is not affected by it.

For those unfamiliar with the different categories of “news” in a newspaper, here are some examples: There’s ‘hard’ news – those are the stories about what is happening in your town or around the world: “California Coast Disappears As 12.0 Earthquake Hits” or “Woman Bites Dog.” These stories simply tell us what has happened, in as dispassionate a manner as possible.

A good and proper journalist will not “editorialize” while writing a news story, nor will they add “colour commentary.” Proper journalism does not allow for telling the reader what the writer thinks of what happened – it confines itself to simply informing the reader what took place, and leaves it up to the reader to decide what to think or feel about it. In fact, this is a basic tenet of journalism. A good journalist must be as impartial as a judge when writing and imparting the news. This is, perhaps, what makes a journalist sometimes seem “cold” when reporting on stories that are emotionally-charged.

There are also “feature” articles in a newspaper – articles that might tell a story about a certain person, group, business or event. These articles generally inform the reader in a more in-depth and colourful way: “If you visit the artist’s quaint studio, he is sure to regale you with entertaining stories of …”

To call the studio “quaint” and describe the stories as “entertaining” is to express an opinion about them. This is perfectly acceptable in a feature piece, which is intended to give the reader the experience of being there themselves. The writer is, in this kind of article, ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’ for the reader.

And then there’s the “Editorial Page,” or the Op/Ed [Opinions/Editorials] section of the newspaper – where you will find articles that express the personal opinion of the writer. For that reason, this is where you will also find the “letters to the editor.”

This section is intended to provide an opportunity for expressing ones own feelings/views on any matter. It is perfectly legitimate for an editor or publisher to express their personal beliefs, here. We may not all share those beliefs – in fact, at times we may personally revile those beliefs – but the editor/publisher has every bit as much right to have and express an opinion as any other citizen. [Only they own a newspaper in which to do so!]

This is where the word ‘editorialize‘ comes from. It means “to express an opinion.” That’s what an editorial is for – for the editor(s) to express his, her or their personal view. It is, I believe, only if that view begins to inform the entire content of a newspaper, that we must be concerned.

Some years ago, a local print newspaper, taken over by a conglomerate, began to occasionally spout what I considered to be offensive right wing religious dogma in its editorials, generally expressed in absolutes and couched in terms like ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ But this newspaper is a good source of local information and I reminded myself that the publisher does not write every article.

In fact, it’s highly likely that many of the newspaper’s writers and other staff are equally as disgusted as I am by their employer’s stance. So I made a decision to continue reading this paper, for the sake of the information and articles I find there, until and unless I feel that they, too, have become tainted by the publisher’s views.

We always have the option of cancelling a subscription, as Sietze Praamsma has, or not picking up a paper, if any editor’s or publisher’s personal views are truly abhorrent to us. And if you suspect that the news being reported has been slanted, or vetted, to support those views, then I strongly suggest that you do just that. As another respondent to this article has said, it is incumbent upon each of us to read responsibly, to be objective, and to ensure we have accurate information.

In late nineteenth century New York, a number of so-called “yellow rags” began competing with The New York Times for newspaper domination. These papers were known to sensationalize the news, and even to print libelous information about their subjects’ lives in order to sell more newspapers. This is what prompted The Times to come up with their now famous slogan promising to publish, “All the news that’s fit to print.” At the time, this was a promise not to prevaricate, or to print ’embellished’ versions of the news.

It seems somewhat amusing and ironic that those words, today, smack of censorship. Let’s face it, it was not so very long ago that an article on a gay athlete, or a successful female entrepreneur who also happens to be the “unwed” mother of three children, would not have been considered “fit to print.” Newsworthiness, after all, is in the eye of the publisher.

In China, for the most part, even today, the government decides what news is “fit to print.” In many countries, and in any dictatorship, the people in power decide what they want their citizens to hear and believe. In some cases those citizens must risk their freedom, and/or their lives, to look outside the ‘sanctioned’ sources to find the real truth. If we, here in Canada, must suffer only the indignity of reading an occasional op/ed piece that conflicts with our beliefs, or even sickens us, in my opinion, it is a small price to pay for the freedom of the press that allows those words to be published.

C. H. Wells

 PS: Here’s a tip: If, during an election campaign, you wish to determine the political affiliation of your news source, whether print or online, you need do only one thing – look to the pictures of the candidates.

In every campaign there are good moments and bad moments. There are also good photos and bad photos: so there’s plenty to choose from. If you notice that the photos of one party’s candidates are always good ones, with their subjects looking calm, relaxed and capable, and the other parties’ candidates are invariably caught with an odd facial expression, or yawning, or frowning, or scratching some verboten body part … Well, you get the point!