Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What Happens When Past Editorials Come Back to Life?

Everyone has an opinion but not everyone puts them in print for the world to read.

That fact has caused grief for some newspaper editors and reporters who decide to switch careers and are then singled out for “politically incorrect speech” by persons offended by past editorials.

It can be a touchy situation when you change from an being an editor, where you are paid to write thought provoking editorials that may raise the hair on people’s neck, to other types of jobs where you can be encouraged to keep your personal opinions to yourself.

That fact led me to do a study in 2005 among other current and past newspaper editors. The goal was to determine what sort of impact past opinion columns and editorials have (or can have) on future work.


Imagine the day when you are no longer a newspaper editor or journalist. You apply for (or even get) another job which works with and represents diverse audiences and opinions. What happens when a potential employer, or co-worker, discovers an editorial you had written 12 years before? Assume also that the topic of the editorial, and position taken by you, are not in keeping with the position of your new (or potentially new) employer or co-worker.

What is a former editor to do? You may have written hundreds, maybe thousands, of editorials during your tenure. What can you, as a former editor whose work is available for the public to see, do to protect your career? What are you ethically bound to do? When does this become a First Amendment issue? And finally, what about damage control to your reputation?


Here are a few of the responses that were shared in regard to this journalism ethics scenario when it was posed to a group of nearly 300 practicing community journalists from around the United States.

Put it in context
“Unlike a tattoo that can be surgically removed, the newspaper, its editorials, and your work will be around as long as bound volumes remain at the county courthouse, the library keeps microfilm and the website archives are in place. I hope I am never ashamed of the work that I do, including the paper trail I leave behind. I think each editor needs to explain what they were thinking and doing five, 10 or 20 years ago to put an older editorial in perspective. Experiences change. Life changes. People are allowed to change their positions and philosophies.”
--- Stacy Chastian, editor, The News Observer in Blue Ridge, Ga.

This feedback came from local journalists.

Editorials reflect character
“I have written columns and editorials for over 28 years and I'm sure that anyone who had read them consistently has formed an opinion of my character and values based on the words I've written. I don't necessarily hold with the same opinions I had 15 or 20 years ago, but neither do I apologize for them. If a writer has been true to himself, then his editorials and columns are an honest reflection of his character and a part of the package. I am who I am. The question you pose is so far outside the realm of concern that I've never even considered it.”
--Jim Hamilton, editor, Herald Free-Press, Bolivar, Mo.

Editorials are supposed to be provocative
“An editor is always vulnerable to the ramifications of an editorial. Our publisher in 1940 wrote an editorial saying it was wrong for the U.S. to get into a war in Europe. I refer to it today as a classic. If the opinion piece can't be defended 10 years from now, it shouldn't be written today. Editors should not have to apologize for their work. If they do, they should have been more thoughtful in the first place. If the new employer has a problem with such a piece, there will be other problems in the future. Any employer should know an opinion piece, by the nature of opinion pieces, at times should be provocative. If an old one still is, the writer should be respected for delivering the goods, and any good writer should be able to work with a superior in shaping opinion pieces for the current market, even if the views haven't always matched.”
-- Murray Bishoff, editor, Monett Daily Times, Monett, Mo.

This national voice also chimed in with feedback.

What is the big deal?
“I don't see a problem. I've been writing editorials for 20 years on a daily basis. Anyone is welcome to go back and look at any of them. I know perfectly well that there are plenty of individuals, businesses and organizations that would never hire me because of editorials I have written over the years. That's the price I pay for telling the truth as I see it. If you are worried that someday someone might hold you accountable for what you are writing and that it might hurt your future earning potential, you have no business in this business. Those of us who set ourselves up as the conscience of our communities by writing editorials and pontificating on how others should conduct their own business or the public's business need to realize that we'll never become popular or beloved. The most we should hope for is that fair minded people will examine the body of our work and find that occasionally we made a point worth considering.”
-- James E. Reagen, Managing Editor, The Journal Advance News, Ogdensburg, N.Y.

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