The need to edit opinion pieces

Opinion pieces such as columns, op-eds and movie reviews need editing just as news stories do. Two incidents in the past week serve as a reminder of that.

First, The Wall Street Journal posted an op-ed by Suzanne Somers in which she criticized President Obama’s health-care law as a Ponzi scheme. To support her view of the Affordable Care Act as a power grab, the “Three’s Company” actress included these quotes from history:

  • “Socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the socialist state.” — Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
  • “Control your citizens’ health care and you control your citizens.” — Winston Churchill

Neither man, however, said those things, as numerous websites and bloggers pointed out. The Wall Street Journal updated the post to remove the erroneous quotes and appended a correction.

But why didn’t the Journal detect and delete the bad quotes before publication? The editor who oversees the series of posts that included Somers’ op-ed told The Poynter Institute that opinion writers get greater leeway. But that doesn’t excuse them from fact errors.

Second, Sen. Rand Paul has been confronted with charges of plagiarism in speeches, a book and an op-ed in The Washington Times. In the latter instance, BuzzFeed reported that Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, apparently lifted significant segments of an opinion piece about mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders.

Plagiarism can be more difficult to detect than a made-up quote, but it can be done. In this instance, Paul included an anecdote about a Florida man who was convicted of illegally selling painkillers. A careful editor could have asked the senator: What is your source for that story? Can we attribute that information or link to a primary source?

In both situations, the publications were embarrassed by breakdowns in editing. These blunders were preventable. Here’s how:

  • Doublecheck quotes from books, movies and historical figures.
  • Ask columnists and op-ed writers for links to sources for facts, figures and anecdotes.
  • Be especially careful with guest submissions from politicians and celebrities who may not be familiar with the rigorous standards for fact-checking, verification and sourcing.

An effective opinion piece has a unique voice, solid research and original ideas. It’s up to writers and editors, working together, to make those viewpoints as persuasive as possible.

For more on editing opinion pieces, here are interviews with editors who have worked with that kind of writing: