With this column I continue a tradition begun last year of writing a monthly column for The Cornell Daily Sun. The Sun’s editorial board — led by Jonathan Lieberman ’08, Olivia Oran ’08 and David Wittenberg ’09 — has generously continued to give me freedom regarding topic choice, and they have even offered to provide suggestions for topics they believe would be of interest to Sun readers. I am honored and proud to be a part of The Sun team.
There is a new activist approach to journalism at The Sun this year and in this first From David column of 2007-08, I’d like to explore what that might mean for the newspaper that proudly proclaims on its masthead and banner “Independent since 1880,” suggesting a history of activist thought. Specifically I ask the question: “How much of The Sun’s or any daily newspaper’s mission is objective reportage, how much commentary and how much is advocacy for a particular position?”
An e-mail from editorial board members, dated Sept. 13, introduced me (and presumably others) to “The Banner”: “the recap of The Sun’s agenda this past week and a preview of our priorities in the weeks to come.” The editorial board rightly and clearly recognized The Sun’s editorials as representing “the official position of The Sun — and one of the strongest voices on campus.” The editorial board stressed The Sun’s “role as a watch dog on campus and in the larger Ithaca and Cornell communities” and the board’s intention to “push for greater accountability in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning with the series ‘Deconstructing Milstein’” and to voice its opinion on topics as diverse as transfer housing, campus activism and plans for a new subdivision in the vicinity of Sapsucker Woods.
To date, pieces I have read on those topics have been clearly labeled “opinion” or “editorial,” and they have presented commentary reflective of the editors’ points of view. I applaud this clarity and hope that the editors will continue this approach in the weeks and months ahead. A strong editorial voice is entirely appropriate in an independent publication like The Sun. It can promote the kind of reasoned discussion and debate that we strive for within our university community and help effect change.
America has a long tradition of investigative reporting and news analysis that may lead to social change. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle — published as a book, not a newspaper article — led to critical regulations in the meat packing industry. Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times columns on Darfur have drawn world attention to that troubled region.
There can be a fine line, however, separating balanced, dispassionate news coverage, commentary and advocacy. Responsible newspapers take pains to keep these separate. So far, The Sun in general has followed that model by limiting its commentary and advocacy to columns and editorials on its “opinion pages.”
What is missing? The opportunity for readers to learn from the news pages about all sides of an issue as background for their own thinking on the publication’s editorial stance. Writing “hard news” requires background research, interviewing, investigating, fact-checking and a logical organization. News stories are more time-intensive and expensive to produce than statements of opinion or belief, but they are, and should be, the core of any newspaper, because they provide the basis on which readers can develop informed opinions of their own.
For example, if commentators assert on the editorial page that the College of Architecture, Art and Planning is the “sick man of Cornell,” I believe they owe it to readers to have covered the issue objectively in the pages devoted to news. That background work being done, critique and criticism can raise important questions, help frame wider debate, and the chips will fall where they may.
To its credit, The Sun followed its opinion pieces on AAP with an interview — more than a week later — with Architecture, Art and Planning Dean Mohsen Mostafavi. How much better it would have been, though, to have the interview and opinion pieces appear in the same issue — or at least on consecutive days — and to have the objective reporting precede, not follow, the commentary.
Provocative editorial writing is in the best tradition of E. B. White and Kurt Vonnegut, whose own contributions to The Sun are still viewed as exemplars for the current generation of Sun staffers. Let’s couple those hard-hitting, provocative editorials with thorough, in-depth reporting that does its level best to explore issues fully and objectively.
David J. Skorton is the President of Cornell University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. From David appears every month.