How to get your opinion published

Every week, newspapers such as the Mail & Guardian present not only news stories but also a selection of views and opinion.

The former dominate the front of the paper, marching self-confidently across pages under headlines that declare: here's something new you need to know. They take their strength from a reliance on what we like to call hard facts.

Further back, the comment and analysis section has a different character, shifting emphasis to a consideration of what those facts might mean. Various voices are given a platform to explain, debate and argue, in tones ranging from thoughtful to polemical.

Prominent among those voices are the editorial, which captures the newspaper's own opinion, the letters section, which gives a selection of readers the chance to make their views known, and, in the case of the M&G, Zapiro's usually stinging comment in cartoon form.

Then there is a selection of regular columns and occasional contributions, mostly by people who are not on the newspaper's staff.

The distinction between reportage and the other modes of journalism, such as analysis and comment, is increasingly blurred, a trend that is being accelerated by the shift of emphasis to online.

M&G Online has an opinion section similar that in to the print edition, but there are many additional opportunities for commentary by readers, from Thoughtleader and direct responses to particular articles, to participation in the vast conversation that churns constantly on social media.

In print, space is limited and a spot on the comment and analysis pages remains highly prized for its reach and the prestige attached to being published in a respected national newspaper. Every week far more contributions are offered than the paper can possibly accommodate. They come from every conceivable shade of opinion and it is the job of the opinion editor to choose which ones to publish.

That is not always easy, as shown in an exchange of emails between comment editor Shaun de Waal and Mike Berger, a prolific pro-Israel writer who has had run-ins with other newspapers over their coverage of the Middle East.

After a piece of his was rejected, a lengthy correspondence ensued, which Berger posted in full on his blog, Solar Plexus. The details of the article at issue are less important here than what the correspondence highlights about the difficult craft of editing a section of this kind.

De Waal at one point defines as publishable something that is "a solid, readable piece of work that stands a chance of being read by people who haven't taken sides already on the argument, or at least are open to opposing views".

In other words, the piece needs to deal with something of public interest, be well written and the argument needs to be reasonably fresh.

A simple reiteration of well-worn arguments is unlikely to get much attention, particularly when it throws in claims that are seen as markers of particular, already well-known opinions. A reference to the "fact" that Israeli settlements on the West Bank are not illegal will cause readers to stop reading on the basis that the rest of the article is simply predictable, says De Waal.

Whether the newspaper shares the writer's view is not material, he says: "I'm trying to make a space for pieces that I may disagree with but can at least buy the argument [as] argument."

The exchange touches only briefly on the issue of balance, which is otherwise often central to debates of this kind. In general, journalism should be fair, allowing opposing views to be heard.

In reportage, it means allowing people at the centre of a critical story to give their side. In the commentary pages, it means allowing a range of opinions to be heard.

But there are important limitations. For one thing, it cannot be applied mechanically – a contribution cannot claim precious space for reasons of balance alone; it needs to be fresh and well-argued too.

At some point an argument runs out of steam and the newspaper sometimes has to call a halt to a cycle of argument and rebuttal. Left alone, they could go on forever.

Also, newspapers should beware of what United States academic Jay Rosen calls false balance – the belief that the truth is always somewhere in the middle. Sometimes, one side in a debate is simply wrong and giving it equal attention amounts to distortion. In South Africa today, outright racist views would struggle to get a hearing on the basis of a need for balance. A few short decades ago, they were seen as respectable, but we have thankfully moved on from there.

Some alignment between the dominant views in society and the newspaper's attitude is inevitable. This constitutes considerable power, which should be exercised with care and the constant awareness that the general consensus may be wrong.

In the end, putting together a good collection of comment and analysis is not easy. It requires judgment to create an engaging whole from a rich variety of voices.

The Mail & Guardian's ombud provides an independent view of the paper's journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact me at [email protected] You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message.

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