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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Abigail Steinberg

In opinionated times, what is the future of opinion journalism?

Copy of the “Madison Resolution” drafted by former members of the Association of Opinion Journalists in 2019.

In the spring of 2019, former members of the Association of Opinion Journalists reunited in Madison, Wisconsin. The group, which merged in 2016 with the American Society of News Editors (now the News Leaders Association), was once 600 members strong. 

Before its membership dwindled to fewer than 200 members and it could no longer sustain itself as a separate non-profit organization, AOJ was the only professional organization dedicated to editorial advocacy and holding the highest professional standards of fairness, accuracy, intellectual integrity and service to the public interest.

This reunion of members produced the Madison Resolution, a promise to continue to promote editorial writing and ensure editorial and opinion writing continues to play a “vital role in journalism, in civic life and in our democracy.”

Indeed, opinion journalism fulfills many functions in American journalism and democracy. Though research on opinion journalism is limited, scholars have suggested that opinion journalists help to evaluate, contextualize and explain the news in ways traditional news reporters may not have the capacity to do. Without opinion journalism, people lose a resource that helps them make sense of what is happening in the world, their country and their community.

In local news, the opinion section of a newspaper was once a vibrant crossroads of debate, discussion, and community engagement. It was a place where opinion journalists could explore important topics and readers could engage with opinion journalists and each other. Now, as newspapers decrease their editorial staff and output, their capacity to provide such dialogue is limited. 

In its stead comes less localized content — letters by public officials and advocacy groups or syndicated opinions on national politics, for example. Local communities lose a mediated forum to debate, discuss and understand the civic issues that matter to them most. Some turn to the cacophony of social media to try to understand the news of the day. 

With our media environment in flux, what will it take to make good on the Madison Resolution?  

The death of the Association of Opinion Journalists is emblematic of a greater trend in journalism. According to Pew Research Center, newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers decreased by about 50 percent since 2008 and the trend continues as the news industry grapples with economic strains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As newsroom staffs shrink, opinion journalists are often quick to go, leaving a significant gap in the pages — in print and online — of local newspapers. This change comes at a time of increasing mistrust and hostility toward news media and, “a cacophony of opinion, bias and vitriol, and corrosive partisanship,” as outlined in the Madison Resolution

David Haynes, former opinion writer and current Ideas Lab editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, attributes some of this change to media fragmentation and social media. 

“Social media and media fragmentation have changed the game for all journalists, whether they write opinions or not,” Haynes says. “Fragmentation means legacy media like newspapers have somewhat less influence than in the past — there are simply a lot of places you can go for information.”

And yet, it may not feel like there is a shortage of opinion in America’s current media landscape, according to Sewell Chan, the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times.

“In our hyperpolarized time, it seems sometimes as though there are too many opinions. But in fact, there is not enough thoughtful opinion writing …”

Sewell Chan, Los Angeles Times

“In our hyperpolarized time, it seems sometimes as though there are too many opinions,” Chan says. “But in fact, there is not enough thoughtful opinion writing — opinion writing that takes into account the complexity and ambiguity of all human affairs; that is empathetic toward people who disagree, and that truly adds insight and perspective. We need [this] high-quality opinion journalism more than ever.”

The high-quality opinion journalism Chan describes can advocate and eventually lead to tangible change in the communities for which it is written. 

Fred Fiske, past president of the Association of Opinion Journalists and the former editorial page editor of the Post-Standard in Syracuse, New York, said their opinion journalism on the rights of people with disabilities helped lead to mainstreaming special education students in Syracuse schools. 

“It’s not like we reformed the government or anything,” Fiske says. “But I like to think we made a difference.”

Fiske says that when a newspaper has an active editorial section, it leads to vibrant civic life within a community. These observations are supported by empirical evidence showing that when local newspapers decline, people consume more nationalized journalism, are less informed about their local government and become more polarized. 

Declining trust in journalism means that clearly labeling opinion content has also become more important. Research by the Duke Reporters’ Lab found readers are often confused about what content is hard news versus what content is opinion. Though opinion journalists often use conventional reporting techniques in their work, they are paid to opine — knowing the distinction between the two could increase trust in newspapers and help with the survival of local opinion journalism. 

Colleen Nelson, the national opinion editor for McClatchy and editorial page editor for the Kansas City Star, also emphasizes the importance of speed and relevance. Though her content separates news from opinion she challenges her opinion writers to mimic conventions of hard reporting. She wants her opinion journalists to be faster and keep up with the speed of the news cycle to give their readers the content they want when they want it. 

“We’ve asked folks to move more quickly … it’s okay to break news in an editorial or a column.”

Colleen Nelson, National Opinion Editor for McClatchy

“The old-fashioned way of doing opinion journalism was that something happened, the newsrooms reports on it, the opinion journalists sit around and think deep thoughts for a couple of days, and eventually come out with their opinion,” Nelson says. “That doesn’t work in the current news cycle. We’ve asked folks to move more quickly … it’s okay to break news in an editorial or a column.”

Jessie Opoien, the opinion editor of The Capital Times, also noted the importance of moving quickly — of staying ahead of the game and being proactive and thoughtful about what readers are looking for. 

To break news using opinion journalism, and to create good opinion journalism more generally, original reporting is essential. Though Nelson’s opinion writers do often rely on reporting from the newsroom, it is not enough to repeat the news that has already been reported and tack an opinion on to the end. Nelson wants her writers to have a strong opinion, but also to tell readers something that they don’t already know.

Opoien echoes this sentiment. 

“It’s a valuable service to not lose sight of the things that made you a solid journalist when you were reporting,” she says.

Another valuable method of revitalizing opinion journalism is localizing a newspaper’s opinion content. At McClatchy papers, Nelson’s opinion teams have focused on endorsing candidates for local office. They conduct interviews with the candidates, do original reporting on them and additional research. She’s found readers specifically subscribe so they can read those endorsements because they contain information readers cannot find anywhere else. 

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel localizes their content as well but goes a step further by blending their opinion content with solutions journalism in their Ideas Lab. Originally, the goal with the Ideas Lab was to publish solutions journalism, as solutions-oriented stories see more engagement.

Haynes says news organizations must publish content that serves their various communities or they will not survive. In an election year in the middle of a pandemic, people have a lot to say, so the Ideas Lab continues to be a hybrid section of solutions and opinion journalism, with the opinion clearly labeled. 

“Our goal with the opinion section was always to provide a place where people could convene and consider the issues of the day.”

David Haynes, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Our goal with the opinion section was always to provide a place where people could convene and consider the issues of the day,” Haynes says. “We still do that now with this hybrid approach.” 

Fiske says he would focus on novel funding mechanisms in order to ensure the future of opinion journalism. He proposes setting up foundations whose proceeds would hire editorial writers and set them up to work in local communities. 

“Once again [communities] can have a narrative of advocacy about daily life in their city,” Fiske said. “Get them an endowed editorial chair at each newspaper — that’s my idea, but no one’s jumped on it.”

Though the approach of the McClatchy papers, The Cap Times, and other newspapers across the country differ, the goal of opinion journalists stays the same, Opoien says. 

“There’s a responsibility to serve the community or at least offer a space where those community conversations can happen, and in a way that is more structured and civil.”

Jessie Opoien, The Cap Times

“There’s a responsibility to serve the community or at least offer a space where those community conversations can happen, and in a way that is more structured and civil,” she says. 

This type of opinion journalism — journalism that serves the community, shows empathy for the readers and respect for those who may disagree — is invaluable for readers in a democratic society. 

Funding, resources and the effects of social media and media fragmentation persist and are likely to continue to change the media landscape, including the roles and responsibilities of opinion journalists. Still, through innovation and localization, many are optimistic about what’s to come.

“Opinion journalism can have a positive future if we make clear its value to communities and relentlessly focus on getting the facts right,” Chan says. 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

A guide to covering hate speech without amplifying it

Image of a microphone against a dark backdrop.
Photo by Ed Rojas on Unsplash

“Hate speech is not free speech.”

This cliche can be heard throughout public discourse, often in opposition to racist, bigoted or hateful speech. Those who propagate the idea have good intentions — but they are incorrect. Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that protection through years of American jurisprudence.

In his opinion in the 2017 case Matal v. Tam Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”

According to Caitlin Ring Carlson, associate professor of communication at Seattle University, those who support hate speech protection argue that hate speech functions as a bellwether for most forms of bigotry. The argument suggests that if bigots are prevented from publicly sharing hateful speech, society will have no idea of how racist, homophobic or hateful it is.

According to this logic, journalists must cover hateful speech so that it is exposed to public scrutiny. Society can then decide that hateful viewpoints are not socially acceptable.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” says journalism ethics specialist and Columbia University adjunct associate professor Thomas Kent, echoing the words of the late Justice Louis Brandeis. “So we really need to be spotlighting bigoted narratives and exposing them for what they are.”

But the realities of hate speech reporting are not always so simple. Socially conscious journalists are rightly concerned with how pervasive hateful speech is in social and political discourse. Less talked about is the line journalists must toe — alerting society to hateful speech without unduly amplifying the voices of hate propagandists. The task is not easy, and if done inadequately, can have harmful consequences. Here are a few guidelines to make sure it’s done right.


To fully understand hate speech protection, it is imperative to contextualize the First Amendment. Jasmine McNealy, associate professor of telecommunication at the University of Florida, says the U.S. Constitution needs to be understood within a power framework.

The Bill of Rights was inspired by Thomas Jefferson and drafted by James Madison, both of whom owned slaves. The signers of the Constitution, many of whom went on to serve in leadership positions, were all white male property owners. In early America, Native Americans and Black Americans were intentionally left out of the country’s decision-making processes because of power dynamics and racism. In modern America, these same communities suffer the brunt of hate speech and have the most to lose as a result of unethical hate speech reporting.

“If we’re going to be Constitutionalist, we have to take into account that our Constitution was created by humans, flawed humans, who have a certain ideology,” McNealy says. “And that comes through in the language that they use, in how these things are interpreted by the courts. It continues to come through even in how we think about [the First Amendment].”

The journalist must first acknowledge the power framework that allowed for hate speech protection and how that framework informs hate speech reporting and the field of journalism in general.


Those who hold and share hateful views are often adept at trapping journalists and the news media. They create discord, often in the form of protests or rallies, that support their prejudiced ideas and opinions and then rely on news media to cover their hateful views no matter how subversive they are. Those who disseminate hate gain their power from the media, so choosing whether to cover them, as well as how to cover them, is powerful within itself.

“Journalists have to decide if hate speech is really newsworthy to begin with,” Kent says. “Is it telling us anything we don’t know?”

Responsible reporters must examine the newsworthiness of the speech to make sure they do not draw undue attention to ignorant, hateful and unproductive expression. Similarly, the journalist should examine the position and reputation of the speaker. Is the speaker a prominent figure in society, government or industry? Does the speaker have a significant following, and how likely is that group to commit hateful or unlawful acts? These are all questions ethical journalists consider. Their answers help determine whether the journalist should cover the hate speech or simply leave it alone.

“But the responsibility of the journalist is not whether the people have the right to say what they say,” Kent says. “It’s whether the journalist chooses to include it, and in what detail and for what purpose.”

Hateful, outrageous speech may be protected by the Constitution, but just because the speech is protected does not make it news.


Information does not exist in a vacuum and understanding where hateful expression is coming from is essential for understanding its meaning and effects. Amy Eisman, assistant professor of communication at American University, stresses the importance of context when reporting on hate speech.

“You are not just a microphone under somebody talking. You are putting it in a context,” Eisman says. “The context might be historic, it might be social, it might be legal. It could be any number of those things. But you have to be a reporter, not a recorder, and you have to offer context to whatever it is you’re reporting.”

According to Carlson, by failing to contextualize hate speech, the journalist does not tell the full story and in turn, does a disservice to the audience. When a journalist fails to explain the context of the speech, the audience may not understand the gravity of the speech and its negative effects on marginalized communities.

“Failing to contextualize some of these issues might serve to normalize it or make it seem like some of these terms or images don’t carry the weight that they do,” Carlson says. “Making it look kind of pedestrian or everyday, I think, takes away some of the impacts that it has on the people who are targeted by it.”

This normalization creates hostile, unsafe environments for those affected by hate speech — most often, people of color, LGBT-identifying individuals and religious minorities, according to Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University.


Journalism students are often taught to cover all sides of a story. But when it comes to hate speech reporting, balancing hateful speech with opposing viewpoints is a nonstarter, Phillips says.

By equating hate speech with opposing views — the opposite of hate, whatever that looks like — the journalist essentially claims that hate speech is an acceptable mode of public discourse and belongs in the marketplace of ideas. Attempting to appear unbiased by showing opposing perspectives is a moot point, as there is no neutral stance to take, Phillips says.

“The both sides impulse when you are responding to hate speech, still it takes a stance. It makes a claim about the value of hearing this kind of speech,” Phillips says. “And that can really embolden and empower racists, even if that’s not the journalist’s intention, even if the journalist’s intention is to be really neutral. Neutrality isn’t neutral.”

Applying the “both sides” standard to hate speech reporting does nothing to help the public understand the root of this hatred and its effects on the communities targeted by hate. These stories should not be told through a point-counterpoint framework, Phillips says, but through a counter-frame.

In her report “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists,Antagonists, and Manipulators Online,” Phillips says reporters should emphasize the perspectives of those harmed by hate speech instead of offering the aggressor an opportunity to justify their repugnant views. Reporters should also avoid framing bad actors as the center of the narrative, as this behavior amplifies hate speech even when it is meant to condemn it.

“By not just shining a light on the aggressor or the racist expression, you can tell a fuller story by panning out and seeing who else’s story you can tell,” Phillips says.

Another framing technique could be covering the reaction, not the speech. In 2010, when a Florida minister planned to burn copies of the Quran, several publications centered their coverage on the minister or the fringe congregation. But the Huffington Post and Mother Jones took a different approach, choosing instead to report on the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s campaign to donate to the Afghan National Army a copy of the Quran for every copy burned. By framing the story around the reaction, rather than the hate speech, those journalists alerted the public to harmful expression without amplifying the islamophobia of a fringe group.

“How we frame things translates to reality, or how people perceive reality,” McNealy says. The journalist must be aware of how their frame translates to reality, whether that be undue amplification or other effects.


Covering hate speech is a delicate business full of fine lines journalists must walk. When done correctly, hate speech reporting can fight the spread of prejudiced ideas and educate the public. When it misses the mark, reporting on hate speech can contribute to radicalization and amplify the hateful viewpoints it is meant to condemn. To avoid that, Carlson suggests journalists go back to the basics of journalism ethics.

“What I always think about is that the Society for Professional Journalists has that code of ethics. And it requires journalists to one, seek truth and report it and two, [minimize] harm,” Carlson says. “I think we’re doing harm to our audience when we don’t call out certain terms or actions as what they are.”

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.