The editorial page of any newspaper is often the most interesting. We scream at the small-mindedness. We wonder at the ignorance. We cheer the courage. We consider the nuances. We question our own certainties. And we learn to respect the combative nature of ideas in the public arena.
Our students do not know what an editorial is. Nor, obviously, an op-ed.
I grew up reading newspapers. I read the sports pages (first), absorbed the editorial cartoons, and marveled at the letters to the editor. Early on, I understood the fundamental difference between information—news—and opinion. And so learned to form my own informed viewpoint.
But that was a print world. Students now inhabit a digital world. When was the last time you saw a student carrying a copy of the Daily News? Or, god forbid, the Wall Street Journal? True, all members of the John Jay community have access to a free digital subscription to the Times, but do we know how students use that? Do they click on the editorial pages?
For much of their schooling, students have been taught to look out for bias. Bias is bad. From there it is a short bridge to seeing opinion as bad, and therefore editorials are suspect.
In my own research on urban affairs, I always look to see what the Times thought. I go into the New York Times Historical database and limit results to articles and editorials (and then, being a historian, “oldest first”). When I ask students whether an editorial would be useful for their topic, they invariably answer no.
How can students who have not read editorials or understand their role in public discourse comprehend the concept of a community of opinion, or the role of opinion shapers? When news comes from everywhere, there is no authoritative voice, and thus no opinion carries more weight than any other.
We have digital access to many newspapers. You will find Ethnic Newswatch; New York State Newspapers; National Newspaper Index; LesisNexis, and more. Consider also Opposing Viewpoints in Context, listed on our website under the subject Current Events. Ask students to find and evaluate opinion pieces on the same issue. Does everyone agree? Are their own viewpoints validated? Are they outraged? What do they think?