Misunderstanding others’ opinions


On Tuesday, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen faced allegations that he himself made a racist comment, when in fact he was expressing the views of some of the subjects of his article.

The exact quote he used was that “people with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.”

The problem is that Cohen was trying to convey the sentiments of a particular group of people separate from himself, but readers confused this with a statement of his own opinion.

This is one hardship of journalism.  If we are writing about controversial topics, we are going to have to express others’ opinions that we do not share (or that we do share but do not wish to disclose).  How do we avoid being called “racist” or “sexist” when we are only retransmitting someone else’s message?

The task is not an easy one.  Some readers automatically perceive what they read to be the opinion of the author.  These people might be stubborn and hard to convince otherwise, no matter what you do.

With people who don’t jump to this conclusion, journalists can be overly clear that they are not the ones with the thoughts they are writing or speaking.  Stress your sources.  In situations when you might be tempted to write “many believe that” or “some think that,” reconsider this.  Instead, wherever possible, insert the identity of the party, such as the name of a group or a specific individual you are quoting.  This should take as much suspicion off of you as possible.

Still, no matter how hard you try, it is difficult to tell how readers will view others’ opinions you write about.  People, like journalists, are always looking for drama.  The more scandalous an issue, the more scandalous it would be for you to express your own unpopular beliefs.  People tend to see what they want to see, which is not always what is actually there.  Unfortunately, to maintain your professionalism, you cannot write in block letters “I DO NOT AGREE WITH THE STATEMENTS THAT I QUOTE IN THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE” at the top of your story.

Just as fiction authors do not necessarily share the same experiences as their narrators, journalists do not always hold the same opinions as their articles’ subjects.  As the saying goes, don’t shoot the messenger.

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