There’s a difference between editorials, op-eds, columns and letters to the editor.
Editorials typically are not signed. A newspaper’s editorial board usually consists of several people who come to a consensus on what an editorial should say. Even though one person writes it, the editorial is the opinion of the majority of the board and, therefore, is presented as being authored by the board and under a heading such as “Our View” or “In Our Opinion.”
An op-ed, or opinion-editorial, is similar to an editorial but typically is written by someone who is not on the editorial board and has a particular insight on a subject. A medical professional, for instance, might submit an op-ed about a current health issue, or an elected official might write an op-ed explaining a proposed piece of legislation.
A column is a recurring opinion or essay of an individual who may or may not be an employee of the newspaper. Columnists usually appear on a weekly or monthly basis and often write on a particular topic like sports, religion or politics. At the end of the column is usually a sentence or two explaining the author’s expertise and/or interest in the subject matter that qualifies them to write the column.
Not only do columns and op-eds identify the writer, but they often appear with a photo of the author.
Letters to the editor come from the local readers of a newspaper and typically have tighter restrictions on length. These, too, must be signed.
The newspaper always reserves the right to refuse to publish any column, op-ed or letter to the editor, but if it’s published, the author must be identified.
In an extraordinary departure from industry standard, The New York Times, long-considered a standard-bearer of journalistic principle, published an unsigned op-ed this week. Although editors at The Times say they know the author’s identity, they identified him or her only as a senior official in President Trump’s administration.
The author claims to be part of the resistance that wants the president’s agenda to succeed, but sees the president’s narcissistic, divisive, erratic and bombastic behavior as dangerous to the country. The stated intent is to work from the inside to protect America from the president’s “misguided impulses” until he’s out of office.
It’s impossible to know the true motives of an anonymous person, but taken at face value, they have been described by some as noble and by others as cowardly. Trump has called the action treasonous, demanded that The Times identify the author and launched his own investigation into who it might be.
The Times has said under no circumstance will the author be identified. Newspapers, as a matter of course, go to great lengths to protect anonymous sources, and rightfully so. Violating that trust would make it all but impossible to report on matters of a sensitive nature.
On its website, The Times defended the decision: “We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”
Admittedly, this isn’t small potatoes. It’s an insider dishing major dirt on the president of the United States. But the bigger the story, the more important it is to leave no room for journalistic motives and tactics to be questioned.
That’s why I believe The Times erred in publishing an unsigned op-ed. In that same position, I would have instructed reporters to make every effort to confirm any points of fact in the op-ed and pursue it as an extremely important news story, including an opportunity for the White House to respond.
As opinion-making journalists, what editorial staffs must resist is the temptation to become what we criticize.
For if we’ve become a nation where the watchdog violates its own principles and standards to make the case that the one being watched violates principles and standards, then we’ve truly lost our way.
Anthony Cook is executive editor of Consolidated Publishing Co. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org