Strong Opinions - Thinking about media commentary

In this article for The National Society of Newspaper Columnists (USA) from January 2017, PBS producer Llewellyn King said that the role of a columnist is to “bear witness and provoke thought” and that the opinion section is like “a newspaper within a newspaper”. 

Columnists have long appeared in newspapers, and with the rise of digital media engagement with columnists has never been at a higher peak than right now. In the UK, all newspapers feature columnists – but how much do their opinions affect those of the people who read them?

In the same article mentioned above, Pulitzer-prize winner and columnist Connie Schultz says ““We have to be leaders. Faster, sooner and more rigorously than the people around us we have to figure out what comes next.”

“As columnists, we cannot ignore politics if we’re going to be engaged at all in the world at large.”

Connie Schultz happened to marry a US senator and resigned from her paper to avoid a conflict of interest and now teaches journalism at Kent State University. The separation of the political and personal is not always the case. In Britain, many political figures write occasional columns for newspapers.

There has often been talk of a ‘Westminster bubble’ that the media and politicians inhabit. In direct comparison to Schultz for example, Michael Gove MP is a former journalist and columnist, married to Sarah Vine, a current Daily Mail columnist. It was Gove (still a sitting MP) who became journalist once more to get the first British interview with Trump following his election.

In Britain, as in other countries and other forms of media, newspapers tend to lean a certain way politically. In the main here they lean to the right. The Daily Mail, Express, Sun, Star, Telegraph, The Times all currently on the right – with The Sun and The Mail easily being the most widely read papers in print and digitally. The Guardian, The I and The Independent (which ceased print last year) are more left leaning.

Editorials are one way of newspapers telling you directly what they think and although columnists have a degree of autonomy over their opinion pieces, you can reasonably expect columnists to have a world view that is in keeping with the newspaper’s.

If you agreed or disagreed strongly in the past with a newspaper column you could write a letter to the newspaper and they might print it. However, now if you agree or disagree with a column, you can comment ‘below the line’ on most columns. This is good for readers as sometimes the author of the piece will engage in direct conversation. The downside is that there are often abusive comments left for the author or other commenters, in response to this, comments are moderated.

But what about the general scale of agreement / disagreement? A quick look at one recent Katie Hopkins column about Trump in the Mail shows that there are 511 comments, the majority of which are in broad agreement and rated highly by Mail readers. It is no surprise then that those that disagree are ‘voted down’ and that there are substantially less of those comments.

Hopkins is an interesting choice to look at too, because if a columnist’s job is to provoke then she certainly does this. Her opinions completely polarise people. Without wishing to focus exclusively on her output, she has notably been criticised by The UN for language used in a column in The Sun describing refugees as ‘cockroaches’. That kind of language is about as extreme as you can get and many people complained about that column. This was not an isolated case, many other columnists over the years have been criticised for their words in a variety of columns.

People tend to stick with one particular newspaper whether in print or online and when we think about how our opinions are formed as individuals, certainly friends and family can influence but so too does the media. It may be that the cycle of reading something you agree with or the comments below reinforces that world view. It is also quite possible that the columns and reactions of others that you agree with on one issue, may influence how you feel about other issues.

A study for YouGov showed that in the main, people believe that newspapers have power and influence over their readers and 85% of respondents thought that the media had power and influence over politicians.

The relationships and courting of newspaper owners and editors by politicians is well documented, with successive governments seeking the ear and approval of powerful media figures like Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre.

How newspapers report the news, from the focus of stories (The Mail and Express ran a huge number of high profile negative stories about immigration during 2016), editorialising of facts and the language and phrases used, can have a huge effect on an individual’s world view. Columnists can be even more explicit in their opinions and use phrases and controversial opinions to great effect.

Social Learning Theory demonstrates that people are not passive recipients of information. Just as an individual’s behaviour is influenced by the environment, their behaviour also influences the environment. Part of how we learn is through observation, not just direct experience.

Psychologist Albert Bandura, the originator of Social Learning Theory said “Media representations gain influence because people’s social constructions of reality depend heavily on what they see, hear and read, rather than what they experience directly.”

This can help explain why people can develop a prejudice against a group of people, without ever having interacted with anyone from that group. Peers, family and others can have influence and so too does the media. Subsequent personal experience with someone from that group will also be influenced by that existing prejudice.

As critical thinkers, it is important that we consider the work of columnists as opinions and do not accept them unquestioningly. What are the facts behind the opinion?