Why aren't editorials signed?

August 06, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

One of my faults as a journalist is that I forget that readers' memories aren't as long as mine, at least when it comes to the stuff I write.

But how could it be otherwise? If I'm lucky, most readers spend a few minutes reading the editorials or signed columns I spent hours researching, writing and revising. And that's assuming that my piece didn't appear on a day when they were too busy to do anything but skim the headlines.

What brought this to mind was a letter that appears elsewhere on this page from Patricia Kessler of Fairplay, who questions why daily editorials and the Saturday "thumbs" column appear without bylines.

Her question: Since reader letters must be signed, why not these?

It's a fair question. The short answer is because editorials are not my opinion, but the institutional position of the newspaper. They're usually written by me, but John League, The Herald-Mail's publisher, has the final word on the stand our editorials take.


Because I've been doing this job since 1985, I'm fairly certain what positions the publisher will support. When I'm not, I seek him out. We meet regularly to discuss local issues and happenings. The bottom line is that I am, in effect, the paper's speechwriter, putting its institutional positions into words.

Our editorials are written with these beliefs in mind:

  • That everyone has a right to be heard.

  • That the public's business should be done in public.

  • That citizens have a right to expect fair value for their tax dollars.

  • That the law should be obeyed, and

  • That bad laws should be changed at the earliest opportunity.

We do not suggest that The Herald-Mail's point of view is the only one that should be considered, but our editorials ought be good enough to get readers thinking about the issues.

Why do we do it this way? It's standard newspaper practice for editorials to be unsigned, although the editorial page editor's name always appears on the page, which means that he or she takes responsibility for what appears.

That includes taking responsibility for the accuracy of information I get from sources. While many editorials are written based on news coverage, sometimes news stories don't contain all I need to put together an editorial.

That's because the questions most news stories are designed to answer - What happened and why? - are different from the ones most editorials try to answer: Is what happened the best thing for the community? And if not, what should happen?

Occasionally I consult with news reporters to make sure I understand what really happened, but the news department does not get involved in writing editorials. Nor do I get involved in news department operations, except to pass along the occasional tip that comes my way only because I've been here for a long time.

There's a good reason for this separation. People couldn't trust the news department to be objective if they knew reporting assignments were being made on the basis of which editorials were going to be written.

According to Edwin Emery's "The Press and America," editorials began to appear in American newspapers in the 1780s. Newspapers then printed flowery, long-winded essays, often signed with pen names like "Publius" or "Old Soldier."

But by 1810, Emery reports, editors had begun to see the value of more concise pieces on important issues. Instead of being a newsroom sideline, editorial writing became a specialty.

Compared to those early days, today's editorials are fairly tame. In 1805, the New England Palladium referred to Thomas Jefferson as " a coward, a calumniator, plagiarist, a spiritless animal."

Jefferson, although occasionally exasperated by his enemies' charges, nevertheless stuck by his resolve to protect the free press, feeling that when offered many varying views, citizens would use reason rather than emotion to figure out the best course.

Almost 200 years later, that is still the mission of the editorial page - to provide as many differing views as possible (including our own) so that the people can decide which is right.

In addition to editorials, I also write a signed column which appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. Although we do not allow unsigned letters, I have written columns in which I quoted someone who did not wish to be identified.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I quoted a local businessperson who visited Ground Zero, but who did not want his words misinterpreted as self-promotion. Years ago, I quoted some adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, to allow them to talk about how their experience had affected them.

Finally, 11 years ago, The Herald-Mail staff went through something called "New Directions for News," in which we learned how important it is to listen closely to our readers. Thanks to Patricia Kessler for reminding me of that important lesson.

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