Are there are too many op-eds? (Irony jab received)
Everyone loves an op-ed these days. Hey, we like them so much, we write one for this newsletter every fortnight for the sheer love of it. But has the proliferation of opinion articles—some using the ‘Well, that’s my opinion’ argument to swerve around facts—reached a tipping point?
In 2018, Steve Bannon, media exec behind the right-wing Breitbart News website, said, “The real opposition is the media.” Because apparently, if you put enough misinformation out there, via shareable memes, videos, social media, and agenda-based journalism, it becomes harder to see the facts, and that can make people tired of seeking them out. Ex-president Trump (how sweet it feels on the fingers to type that) was relentlessly anti-facts, repeatedly shifting the onus elsewhere by sowing public distrust in those outlets abiding by journalistic codes of conduct. Enter, ‘fake news’.
If you can convince people that some of the world’s best and highly trained journalists are capable of outright lies, you can see why ‘distrust in the media’ became a war that journalists had to fight. And kudos to all those that did, have done, and continue to do, keeping people accountable, be that Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel or (one of many) White House press secretaries.
Journalism isn’t a polarised business of backing someone or criticising them: it’s about accountability, truth-seeking and truth-telling. So, shouldn’t that at least also be the foundation of an opinion article? As the quote goes, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." And the opinions genre isn’t helped by the need to react to everything, so quickly. Sometimes—and we check the news fairly compulsively—an op-ed or tweet has gone viral before we’ve even heard about the original news item in the first place.
In part, that’s down to social media, in a world where billions of people can instantly share their views; and in part, it’s the need for publications to get those digital kicks and clicks. But if posts and articles are so reactive that there’s been no time to chew over the facts—or they’re driven by a need to create controversy, debate or even fear or division—is that ethical?
We’ve seen the influence of something like Fox News in the US. It took an insurrection on the Capitol building for some of its pundits to distance themselves from Donald Trump. In Britain, we’ll soon have GB News, a Brexit-funded media channel with a right-wing slant. Personally speaking, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
We already have an opinion-heavy press, with so many broadcasters, writers and presenters having a dedicated platform, show or column. That doesn’t mean they all ignore the facts; of course not. But it does mean we’re more likely to read or hear something that’s more ‘for’ or ‘against’ than ever before. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of facts. After all, this is the era in which one of the world’s most powerful leaders casually debated injecting bleach or using a ‘powerful light’ to combat COVID-19—not in private, but at a press conference.
And, as we’ve seen with the coverage of COVID-19 (to use that example), some journalists have used their platforms to discuss mask-wearing, the vaccine and lockdowns in a way that reads more as a stream of consciousness than anything else—at times, with a smattering of unconscious or confirmation bias, using selected stats to back up an opinion. Be honest, how many times have you Googled something and phrased the question in a way that gives you the answer you want—however innocently?
Anecdotes and lived experiences are often at the heart of a good op-ed—but they still need to be placed in context. If you experienced something, it happened—no question. But does that make it widespread, the norm or a trend? Enter: the facts. And, if you have influence and a wide reach, as an individual or a publication, it’s irresponsible to run op-eds that spread fear, angst or controversy for the sake of it.
Journalism needs opinions, absolutely (otherwise that’s our newsletter down the proverbial toilet), from experts, thought leaders, writers and more. Different ideas, perspectives, voices across gender, race, religion, class, age etc. is part of this—ruminations on life’s issues is how we evolve our own critical thinking—and alongside hard news, it’s integral to a healthy media ecosystem. But maybe, we need to move away from the need to publish something within 10 minutes of thinking it.
P.S. If you missed any of our past 10 newsletters, you can read them all here. And if you liked the newsletter, why not support us with a digital cuppa?
Writing Tip of the Day
You might notice, and we see it more in travel articles set in certain places, that some people such as guides, rangers or a bar owner, are referred to by their first name only. But just as it’s rare to see an article about a hotel owner in Cornwall quoted in an article simply as “According to Marina….” with no surname or proper job title, why would we not give full names to anyone else?
In some cases, there’s no name at all and it’s just “my guide told me” or “the guesthouse owner”. It's of course fine if it’s a person encountered in passing, but presumably if you’ve done a tour or stayed somewhere, a name wouldn’t be too tricky to come by. If there’s a cultural reason for only including one name, perhaps just the family name (or of course, they don’t want to be quoted!), again, that's not the issue. But giving a full identity to the people we include in our features should be part-and-parcel of our research.
The Sense Check
“What's another way of referring to 'colonial' architecture?”
"It depends on the context and what the writer wants to say. If 'colonial architecture' is used to describe a particular design style or era, have readers been given enough context to understand what the 'colonial' part of the equation actually involved?
Too often, writers use the term to evoke a warped nostalgia or as a clumsy synonym for 'charming' or 'attractive', while glossing over questions such as why is it there, who benefitted from it, who did the work and under what conditions, what do locals think about it today, and so on.
Moreover, I try (not always successfully) to avoid using 'colonial architecture' in my own writing because it’s a cliché that doesn’t necessarily give readers an accurate idea of what a building, neighbourhood or city actually looks like."
"Instead of thinking about another way of describing colonial architecture, why don’t we rethink where the question takes us?
Forget baroque architecture in Asia or mock-Tudor houses perched on the side of the Himalayan foothills. Forget about dismantling buildings, or unpicking what might or might not be ‘European’ about them. Instead, let’s think about colonisation as a kind of architecture, as a set of aesthetic principles, values, norms, and structures which conditioned every aspect of people’s reality across the imperial world.
Buildings can be torn down or fall into obsolescence. But let’s not pretend that colonial architecture is just bricks and mortar. The legacy of colonialism persists in the architecture of our judgements about value, taste, and justice."
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Did You Know?
You may have read that, on Tuesday—India’s 72nd Republic Day—its government ordered a temporary shutdown of the internet in parts of New Delhi, in an attempt to stifle the country’s ongoing farmers’ protests. But did you know that the Indian government has imposed an internet shutdown more than 400 times during the last five years?
Internet speeds in the contentious region of Kashmir, for example, have been limited since March 2020—after pushback from local newspapers and advocacy groups to India's Supreme Court, about the full shutdown that was originally imposed—but the legal reasoning for this being upheld remains shrouded in secrecy. While this is not a new practice in India, shutdowns remain a favourite tool of the current administration, who say they only use it to maintain ‘law and order’ and prevent the spread of ‘misinformation’. In reality, it’s usually deployed to squash public dissent and, according to a Deutsche Welle analysis, most frequently during or after incidents of police brutality.
The same analysis examined news reports for the context in each case, identifying nine categories (ranging from ‘misinformation’ to ‘religious conflict’). It showed that nearly every second shutdown occurred against a backdrop of state violence, including a shutdown implemented after protests against Prime Minister Modi’s anti-Muslim ‘citizenship law’, during which peaceful protesters were injured by police brutality and died within police custody.
In 2019, Access Now reported that India implemented 121 internet shutdowns in one year—the most in the world. By comparison, Venezuela, a country classified as an authoritarian regime by the Democracy Index, saw its government shut down the internet 12 times in the same year. The highest on record is 134 shutdowns, also by India, in 2018.
If you haven’t heard of The OpEd Project, it’s worth a look. It’s a community of journalists, activists and thought leaders whose aim is to change who writes history by amplifying under-represented expert voices—across age, gender, class, color, ability, gender, orientation and more. They believe we can find solutions to the world’s biggest problems with this diversity of voices, expertise, experience and identity. It’s also a great resource for op-ed/commentary writers with handy tips and pitching advice.
Over 40 years ago, two women in prison who believed in the power of theatre to transform people’s lives set up Clean Break. They use theatre to illustrate the complicated theme of women and crime, and to highlight the failures of the criminal justice system, in particular how it affects women, those who’ve experienced it and those at risk of ending up in it. The only women’s theatre of this kind, they're unafraid to ask tricky questions—something we always applaud—to initiate meaningful change.