A weekly opinion column in the Springfield News-Leader illustrates the pitfalls when Gannett newspapers rely more on reader-submitted articles that get scant attention from editors.
Now, let me say right away that I think papers have gotten too bland in recent years, as publishers worried about losing readers over controversial content. Opinion pages, especially, deserve to be open to many views, and can't fall victim to the political correctness police.
But I'm not convinced that community member Joe Snider's "Patriot's Pen" column in Monday's print paper got much editing beyond a perfunctory spell-check. And I don't say that merely because of his casual use of "colored youth" to describe black teenagers in his op-ed about whether white Americans owe slave descendants an apology.
Read the full column, and you'll see some sloppy, slap-dash writing -- evidence of an author so amateur, you wonder why he appears on the pages of a serious daily paper.
Editor: terms 'in flux'
Yet, it was the "colored" word that galvanized some readers, as well as a journalism professor at nearby Missouri State University. Stranger still, was the unsigned response by one of the paper's editors:
"We try to give writers flexibility in terms to express themselves. Terms involving race are always sensitive, but it should be noted that the use of colored, negro, black or African-American are in flux."
In one of 145 comments posted on the story, reader Acline was aghast: "Editing? Are you guys asleep at the switch? Are you really this tone deaf? Do you not have an AP Stylebook? 'Colored' is offensive. You can edit that out without harming the meaning of this amateur punditry."
Prof: 'failure to edit'
Associate journalism professor Andrew Cline's response was more detailed. "I have been arguing somewhat regularly that the News-Leader’s failure to edit its amateur pundits and teach them the basics of opinion journalism has created a toxic opinion section that is harmful to our civic discourse,'' Cline wrote on his Rhetorica blog. "I stand by that criticism. It’s not hard to do."
Citing the Associated Press Stylebook, and the Society of Professional Journalists's guide, Cline said, "the use of colored is most certainly not in 'flux.'"
His conclusion: If the News-Leader is going to give readers columns with titles and mug shots, "then journalistic ethics demands" that the opinion page editor, or someone else on staff, "edit these columns and attempt to teach these pundits how to be opinion journalists."
Earlier: N.J. papers scolded for letting hockey team cover itself
Now, it's your turn: How much leeway should Gannett offer to community readers writing for newspapers? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.
[Image: today's paper, Newseum]