I’ve been speaking with a constant stream of readers today about an unusual choice editors made for the top of Page A1 in today’s print edition. It’s a column from The Star’s Jenee Osterheldt about her own reaction to the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin.
There’s certainly nothing unusual in that. For better or for worse (I’d argue the latter), the verdict has been the No. 1 point of public debate the past few days. It’s only natural that Osterheldt, a biracial woman who often uses her column to explore issues relating to race and public life, would address it.
One can very reasonably disagree with editors’ choice to place the column on the front page, and particularly its taking the full width of the page above the fold. There has been precedent for columns on the cover in the past, though they aren’t common.
However, I think it was a major oversight that the column was not clearly and explicitly labeled as commentary. Readers will notice that the boxes with columnists’ photos that run in most of the rest of the paper carry that label clearly.
In the Features sections, though, “commentary” doesn’t quite apply to many of the items that appear there. For example, theater critic Robert Trussell’s column in the Sunday A+E section isn’t really a commentary so much as a roundup of news and information from the local theater community. Or a TV review from Sara Smith, while an expression of opinon, isn’t as strictly commentary as critique.
For those reasons, I think using labels with the writer’s role or contact information — “theater critic” and “firstname.lastname@example.org” here — is a better fit than “commentary” in these cases.
The photo that normally runs with Osterheldt’s column uses her email address, in the style of the others that run in the Features section, her usual home.
However, in this case it clearly should have been changed to say “commentary.”
To someone who works on a newspaper, the “column sig” in and of itself is a self-evident advertisement that we’re looking at a commentary column. But that simply isn’t true for everyone who reads the paper.
On the same day’s Sports Daily cover, Sam Mellinger is writing on the far less consequential topic of the Pirates and the Royals. His column is labeled as commentary.
The Martin case has inflamed passions, and quite frankly most of what I’ve heard about The Star’s coverage isn’t really about how the news has been reported, but about individuals’ opinions and feelings. Running an opinionated column about it from one of The Star’s best-known writers is a perfectly fine decision.
But I understand fully those readers who think to put it at the top of Page A1 without the clear and unambiguous label of commentary is meant to convey that Osterheldt’s opinions are being endorsed as the official point of view of The Star. That wasn’t editors’ intention, but it’s a reasonable inference for anyone to make.