To Publish or Not To Publish?

Posted by Selchia Cain

It is an editor’s job to ensure that nothing impedes the writer’s message to the audience, and as an editor to maintain their sense of loyalty to the readers of their publication.

This may sound like a simple mission statement, until an editor is placed in the hot seat of having to make the tough call of publishing or not publishing the controversial pieces of their writer’s. 450px-Editing_a_paper

Op-eds are great examples of those polemic pieces. It is in  this arena of journalism where editors make the difficult decisions to publish or not to publish. Hoping to strike a balance between publishing a writer’s work while keeping the best interest of their readers  in mind.

But sometimes when placed in the hot seat of making the choice to publish controversial writing, you can get burned.

Just before the New Year,  seasoned op-ed writer for the Des Moines Register Donald Kaul busted out of retirement for the third time to write what was perceived to be an insensitive op-ed, on the NRA during an extremely sensitive time, as America was just beginning to put the pieces of their hearts back together after the Sandy Hooks Elementary shooting.

Kaul’s op-ed was an angry call to action to stop being concerned about “offending the NRA’s sensibility.”  He made arguments for declaring the NRA as a terrorist organization. And included violent statements such as:

“Then I would tie Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, our esteemed Republican leaders, to the back of a Chevy pickup truck and drag them around a parking lot until they saw the light on gun control.”

Register readers where both outraged and supportive of Kaul’s piece, receiving 839 comments. Which only aided in drawing clear line in the sand in already heated and emotionally sensitive debate. The decision made by The Des Moines Register Media editor Rick Green, to publish Kaul’s op-ed, had backfired. And when faced with opposition from his readers he made the best PR move he could, and issued an apology, stating:

“It didn’t get the careful critique from us that it deserved. We should have tempered the rhetoric and insisted his views be a bit crisper so they weren’t misconstrued for condoning violence.

I regret those missteps. And while there certainly was no attempt to be reckless, I’m sorry if it may have offended you. It shows how the use of satire on such a sensitive issue can lead to confusion for the very readers we value. We will keep that lesson front-and-center in the future.”

And within the same day an apology was issued, the Des Moines Register published a revised, less satirical offensive version of Kaul’s op-ed, with the opening line being, “ I think I hit a nerve.” 

This is only one example that calls to question, when to publish and when to not publish. Do you go with your gut? Do you stand by readers’ or your writers’? And should you ever apologize for exercising your right to the first amendment?


8 responses to “To Publish or Not To Publish?

  1. I love the issues this post raises about just how far editorial content should go. Op-eds, by nature, are designed to be polarizing. In fact, I would say that generally, the more comments an article receives, the better. However, this desire to stir up conversation must be balanced by maintaining a publication’s reputation. In the case of the latest Kaul piece, his bold argument did more than just stir up talk, it reflected somewhat poorly on the Register. This balance is where the editors come in. It is the job of the op-ed writer to be as bold as possible, but the editor’s job to ensure that that boldness maintains its divisive edge without becoming truly offensive. In all, this case, and others like it, seem to represent yet another somewhat psychological challenge of the editing profession!

  2. Last semester Rick Green visited the Media Law and Ethics class (J104) taught by Kathleen Richardson to offer incite on how he makes decisions on what to publish and how.

    Green referenced coverage of an extramarital affair of the Des Moines Public School Superintendent during which she communicated on the school districts email address and computers. The point he made was that the accuracy was the most important aspect of a story he considered prior to publishing a piece. He explained the process further but he definitely did not recommend “going with your gut.” He had a mental check list.

    Readers are an editor’s first priority. The writer will get over “it,” a reader may not be as flexible. An apology may be acceptable but mere acknowledgement is very important. In my opinion, an apology would be to tell the readers that the editor made an error in understanding how the reader would receive the piece. He or she would be apologizing for not making suggestions to clarify the message from writer to reader. It should not be an apology for the opinion shared. Also, now that people can comment on articles, the immediate feedback probably dictate an editor’s reaction differently than in the past.

  3. I think it’s important for journalists and citizens alike to be able to write an op-ed based on something they feel strongly about. That’s the beauty of this field: your opinion is valuable and able to be heard. I do think it becomes an issue when an opinion piece, like Kaul’s, becomes outright controversial in nature and plain uncalled for. He ends his article by stating that opposers to his opinion should be drug by a truck until they change their minds. While I believe an op-ed should be combative, it should have facts that back up their opinion as well as address the other side’s possible standpoints. The Register, in my opinion, shouldn’t have issued an apology. Their decision was to run the article as it was, and they should have stuck by that decision no matter how incensed readers may have become.

  4. I really like this post. I would like to be a columnist someday and as everyone else has been saying I think a commentators’s job is to start a conversation. They are supposed to be opinionated and make people think about issues. However, they also need to present their opinions in a way that their readers will accept. Nobody wants to read that someone wants to drag them by a truck if you don’t agree with their strong opinion. I really like the question you ask about an editor standing by their readers or their writer too. After talking about this in class a lot, I feel that an editor should always stand by their writer, but the reader needs to come first. Sure, the writer came up with an op-ed that could get people’s attention, but it ultimately hurt the readers. There’s nothing that could have been done after the article was published and I agree with Taylor that the Register shouldn’t have issued an apology. They needed to stand by their decision.

  5. Rylee Maxwell

    I agree with Steph. The editor needs to keep the reader in mind above everything else. Op-eds exist so writers can share their opinions about current issues, but that does not mean they can forget to consider their readers when they are writing. It’s one thing to express an opinion in a heated discussion with an acquaintance but it is another thing entirely to publish it for multiple readers. The writer has to consider the impact the piece will have on the readers and the impression it will leave in their minds about not only the writer, but the publication as a whole.

  6. It looks as if most of you believe editors should stand by the boldness of their writers and be unapologetic about what they publish. But creating that balance of keeping your readers first can be challenging. I do agree with everyones statements about op-eds being a platform for journalist to share their opinions with readers. But I would like to answer another question…can a writer ever go to far?

  7. Being an editor is a tough job. There are many gray areas and every editor has different ideas about what to publish and what to reject. That said, inciting violence is always a bad idea because even it if is done as satire many will take it as a call to action.

    No writer, editor or publisher should put themselves in the position of enabling recommendations of violence against anyone for any reason.

  8. Raquel Rivera

    In response to your first question, I think editors should stand by their writers BUT with that, the editor needs to make sure the writer is not violating any code of ethics and is not reflecting poorly on the publication in any way. Exercising the first amendment is obviously very important to writers but each story needs to be evaluated and depending on where the issue the writer is talking about stands with the general public. The Sandy Hook elementary school shooting I would say is still a sensitive issue and the way Kaul wrote about it was in a violent tone which for what he was writing about I think was wrong.
    In response to your second question, I think a writer can go too far. For example in op-ed we read in class, “The 10 Commandments for Dinning with Little Kids” the writer went to far and was, in my opinion, extremely rude and wrote in such a way that readers would obviously not take well too. That’s when an editor could have stepped in and changed the tone and WC in the story to still get across the writers point but in a more sensitive way.

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