By Zach Weigel
It’s hard to believe that this is the last column I’ll ever write for The Daily Iowan. It’s been over a year now, but it really does feel like it was just yesterday that I was starting to learn how to be a journalist. Nevertheless, time passes; so as I write my last column, I’d like to reflect on a few important things I learned from my transition from reporter to columnist.
First and foremost, being a reporter can be an extremely vexing job. You can’t simply do some research and write a story. After you’ve been assigned a story (either your own pitch or one delegated to you by your editor), you must contact at least three sources. And any seasoned reporter will tell you that you better have contingent sources and a backup plan because it can be incredibly difficult to get the necessary information from your sources within your budgeted time.
Moreover, when you do get in contact with your sources, you better ask the right questions. Ideally, your questions ought to elicit entertaining answers.
Then, once you’ve gotten information from your sources, you fact-check the information for accuracy before you begin to synthesize everything into a narrative. And this narrative is subject to word-count parameters, supervisory editing, and formatting guidelines that emphasize short, sweet paragraphing of the “nuts and bolts” much more than evoking details.
This all goes to say that although the product may be a rather small article, there is a lot that goes into a news story behind the scenes. It’s not just putting words on paper. Writing a story is an earnest endeavor that is more akin to a work of art refined through a painstaking process. So if you like telling a story and can handle the rigor cultivating sources within stiff deadlines, then reporting might be for you.
But if you like to tell a good story and have a proclivity for analytical thinking, then perhaps the Opinions section of a newspaper is a good fit. I know it certainly has been for me.
As a columnist you are granted more freedom than a reporter. When you’re a reporter, your job is primarily to observe, listen, and then report; however, when you’re a columnist, you provide commentary by unpacking the news. As a columnist, your job is to help others understand the significance of something by scrutinizing the facts and figures. Your duty is not just to report but to also give context to facts and figures by formulating an argument to persuade your audience or give them something to think about.
More to the point, there is more to opinion writing than meets the eye. Writing a good column isn’t as simple as it seems. While everyone has an opinion, to be a good Opinions’ writer, you must have an informed opinion. Therefore, after spending the last year as a journalist, I’ve come to believe that informed opinions are crucial to the vitality of our democracy. Perhaps now more than ever given the oft-mentioned assault on “the media.”
While everyone is entitled to an opinion, every opinion shouldn’t be treated the same. Just like some pieces of art are better than others, some opinions are better than others.
What separates the good from the bad opinions? Perspective. At its crux, an opinion is really just one way of looking at something, but if that opinion is informed, if it has incorporated other perspectives, then maybe that opinion deserves more weight than a blustery, off-the-cuff remark.
Just as a detective investigates a mystery, a good piece of journalism is investigative because investigation yields a more informed opinion than instinct can.