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Last week, I cringed while reading a letter to the editor in which the writer, who lives right here in Missoula, repeatedly referred to letters and guest columns on the Opinion page as though they were news articles.

Her misunderstanding was just the most recent example of a pervasive problem described in a report released in June by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The “Americans and the News Media” study found that half of those surveyed were only a little familiar with the term “op-ed,” or don’t know what it means at all, and less than 30 percent considered themselves very familiar with the term.

Nearly 3 in 10 don’t know the difference between an editorial and a news story — about the same number as those who don’t understand the difference between a reporter and a columnist.

As the Missoulian’s Opinion editor for the past 10 years, I’m disheartened by these numbers but not at all surprised. Over the past decade, I’ve watched blogs and social media increasingly conflate news with opinion even as traditional print, radio and TV news failed to draw a clear line between hard news and commentary for their readers, listeners and viewers.

At the Missoulian, the Opinion page and all opinion pieces are clearly labeled as such. Nevertheless, even some of my colleagues in the newsroom have expressed confusion about the difference between an editorial, a guest column and a letter to the editor — all material that falls under the general category of “opinion.”

In a nutshell:

An editorial is an opinion piece that represents the view of the newspaper’s editorial board. While it was once common practice for editorials to go unsigned, the trend has been toward accountability by listing the names of editorial board members. The Missoulian follows this practice. What it means is that, while individual editorial board members might not agree with particular statements or even entire editorials, the majority agree that the editorial holds some value for readers that makes it worthy of publication.

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In contrast to an editorial, guest columns — sometimes called guest opinions or guest views in other newspapers — are not products of the Missoulian editorial staff. They are submitted by writers from outside the news organization, and we may or may not agree with their content. In fact, I often specifically seek out perspectives our editorials do not agree with in order to ensure that an opposing view is made available to readers. The term “op-ed” was once commonly applied only to opinions that countered the newspaper's stance and usually ran on the page opposite the daily editorial — hence the term “op-ed,” or “opposite editorial.”

The Missoulian requires the writers of guest columns to have some direct experience or expertise in their subject matter, and we include that information for readers so you'll know why that particular opinion was afforded more space (guest columns are 600 words or less while letters to the editor have a 200-word limit).  

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Letters to the editor are shorter opinion pieces on any matter of public interest. No special expertise is required for a letter, and because space is so limited, we tend to give letter writers a great deal more leeway when it comes to making assertions. Nevertheless, I do watch for obvious factual errors and try to catch as many as I can. But in the end, we rely on our readers to fight bad information with good, counter weak arguments with strong ones, and engage with one another in honest, open debate.

That’s why we don’t publish anonymous commentary or anything signed under a fake name. While we fully understand the discomfort that can come from attaching your name to an unpopular or controversial opinion, it’s necessary for transparency and accountability — two of the fundamental building blocks of constructive public discourse.

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Tyler Christensen is the Missoulian's Opinion editor. Reach her by phone at (406) 523-5215 or by email at oped@missoulian.com

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