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Editorial pages become more useful.

Daily newspaper editorial pages have become more useful, and probably more influential, in the past two decades as their editorial writers have taken more and stronger stands on issues and provided better benchmarks for their readers.

A 1994 replication of a national survey reported in 1977 indicates that editorial writers are writing more local editorials and increasingly taking stands on issues. Changes were noted in leads and endings, the use of argumentation, writing style, and the overall approach to editorials.

Readership of editorial pages remains high, especially among those who are involved in community life. Increasing numbers of editorialists see themselves as influencing public officials and other citizens in their reactions to political, social and moral issues. Only 2% of the respondents said they do not believe they have any influence in these areas.

These findings should be encouraging to newspapers and to citizens generally. If newspapers provide clear, documented, persuasive benchmarks in their editorials and if they provide public forums on their editorial pages, they can help committed citizens develop a more responsive, effective government in the United States.

Moreover, the availability of such help could motivate more citizens to make a commitment to try. To become effectively involved, citizens need the benchmarks and forums increasingly found on editorial pages as well as the information and explanation provided in news sections.

The findings reported here were compiled from a random survey of editorialists on daily newspapers. Their significance is supported by a 50% response (N=191) that is well-distributed among various circulation groups and sections of the country.

To facilitate discussion and comparisons with the 1977 survey, the results are collected under several headings: profile of writers, sources of ideas and information, use of stands, problems, writing style, perceived influence, and trends and possible changes. A summary of these findings is given below.

Middle-aged males still dominate the editorial writing field, but the percentage of women has increased significantly, from only 5% of the total in 1977 to 20%. Almost two-thirds (65%) of the editorialists are in the 35-50 age group.

Sources of ideas, information

Editorialists continue to rely heavily on their own newspapers for editorial ideas and information. Virtually all listed their own newspaper as a source of ideas, and almost two-thirds (66%), as compared with 36% in 1977, listed it as the source used most often.

Regional dailies nearby led the list of other newspapers and magazines from which editorialists get ideas. Almost half cited them as compared with Newsweek, cited by 18%; The New York Times, 14%; Time, 11%; The Wall Street Journal, 10%; U.S. News & World Report, 8%; The New Republic, 5%; and USA Today and The Economist, each 3%.

Editorialists also rely on their own newspapers and reporters for information for editorials. Almost half (45%) cited stories in their newspapers as the source used most often. That is about three times as many as rely most often on reporters, 17%, or individuals involved in the subject matter of the editorial, 17%. They cited a number of other sources, including their newspapers' libraries.

Greater use of stands

The increasing interest in editorial stands supported by evidence and argumentation can be seen in the editorialists' changing views of their function and approach. Almost two-thirds (62%) of the editorialists, as compared with 38% in 1977, said the primary function of their editorials is to express an opinion or viewpoint.

Only 3%, as compared with 12% in 1977, cited "provide new information" as the primary function while 14%, as compared with 2% in 1977, cited "guide or instruct" as the primary function.

Almost half (47%), as compared with 29% in 1977, cited the "quality of argument" as the most important factor in developing editorials. Almost a fourth (23%), as compared with 5% in 1977, cited "taking a strong stand" as most important.

Editorialists remain committed to covering various viewpoints in editorials and recommending the one they think should govern the situation. Almost four-fifths (79%) in 1994 and 73% in 1977 indicated they give attention to opposing viewpoints in editorials.

Significantly, only 11% in 1977 and 6% in 1994 opted to "give only the side of the argument you wish to recommend," and only 2% in each survey chose to "give both sides and leave decision to the reader."

Major, minor problems

In response to a new question added in 1994, more than four-fifths of the editorialists indicated that they do not have "major problems" in finding good subjects for editorials, in controlling their prejudices and emotions while writing them, in dealing with the complexity of issues involved, or in getting adequate space to present their arguments.

More than half (58%) cited a lack of time for research as a "major" problem, and 44% cited a lack of time to write their editorials as a "major" problem. About four-fifths cited these as problems, and more than half cited finding good subjects and dealing with the complexity of issues as problems.

Editorialists were pursuing essentially the same steps in writing editorials in 1994 as in 1977. Most reflect on their ideas, do research, and organize the editorial before writing it, although only 16% in each survey said they make an outline as part of organization.

Exactly half of the editorialists in each survey indicated that they spend "one to two hours" researching typical editorials. About a sixth, 15% in 1977 and 14%

in 1994, said they spend less than one hour on research, and 22% in 1974 and 14% in 1994 said they spend more than two hours on research.

More than half, 59% in 1977 and 67% in 1994, said they spend "one hour or more" in writing their editorials, and 34% in 1977 and 14% in 1994 said they spend less than one hour in writing them. The others did not give estimates.

More forceful writing

The trend toward more argumentative editorials can be seen in both the types of leads and types of endings used most often. The percentage most often using a statement of opinion in the lead increased from 8% in 1977 to 20% in 1994, and the percentage most often using a combination of news and opinion almost doubled, from 17% to 32%. The number most often using a call for action ending increased from 43% to 57%.

Increasing percentages of editorialists used writing forms such as narration, description, explanation, and argumentation, writing devices such as syllogisms and analogies, and writing approaches such as inductive and deductive reason in 1994. Significantly, the number using argumentation rose from 56% in 1977 to 74% in 1994.

Substantial percentages also used direct and indirect quotations, two options added for participant response in 1994. Almost two-thirds (66%) used direct quotations, and almost three-fifths (59%) used indirect quotations.

Perceived influence

Most editorialists indicated in response to a question added in 1994 that they believe their editorials do have influence on local political campaigns and local government officials and on social and moral issues in their communities.

Five-sixths said they have "much" (38%) or "moderate" (49%) influence on officials. Slightly more than three-fourths indicted they have "much" (23%) or "moderate" (53%) influence on campaigns, and three-fourths indicated they have "much" (24%) or "moderate" (51%) influence on social issues. More than half indicated they have "much" (15%) or "moderate" (45%) influence on moral issues. Some said they have "little" influence, and a few did not respond, but only 2% or less said they did not have any influence in these areas.

Editorialists at all sizes of newspapers in all sections of the country cited a variety of examples of perceived influence on specific issues. Influence cited by large-circulation papers included such things as:

* Helping obtain the election of the city's first black mayor.

* Influencing negotiations on the state budget.

* Helping to win approval for changing the form of city government.

* Helping improve state child welfare laws.

Influence cited by medium-sized and small papers included such things as

* Getting the local government to abandon a one-way street plan the paper said was not helping traffic

* Getting the local government to accelerate the search for additional water supplies

* Getting the school board to adopt a sex education curriculum that emphasized abstinence but included information on birth control and related matters

* Helping obtain passage of a sales tax dedicated to economic development

* Helping get a compromise between city and county officials on a health issue.

Trends, possible changes

Editorial writers identified a number of trends in response to another multiple-choice question added in 1994. More than two-thirds (70%) identified shorter editorials and more local topics as trends, and almost two-thirds (65%) identified easier-to-read editorials as a trend. More than a third cited strong stands on issues (36%), more state topics (36%), and more humorous editorials (35%) as trends, and almost a third cited more personal writing style (30%) and less rhetoric (30%).

Most of the responses to an open-ended question regarding predictions for changes in the next decade fell in these same areas, but several small clusters were identified that could prove significant if they evolve. Almost a fourth (24%) predicted improvements in writing, 11% predicted more interaction with readers, and 7% predicted greater diversity of editorial staffs.

An analysis of more than 100 possible changes mentioned at least once indicates that substantially more editorialists have a positive outlook than a negative one, but that there are some significant concerns that need to be addressed. The breakdown of items by emphasis showed 46% positive, 28% negative, and 26% neutral.

Many of the positive comments referred to improved writing and writers. Negative comments often focused on a possible reduction in strong stands and a resultant lack of impact.

Taken as a whole, this study offers evidence that newspapers are seeking to exercise leadership roles, provide public forums, and contribute to improved operation of the American system, especially at the local level, through their editorials and editorial pages.
Editorial trends noted by survey respondents

Shorter editorials 70%
More local topics 70%
Easier-to-read editorials 65%
Strong stands 36%
More state topics 36%
More humor 35%
More personal 30%
Less rhetoric 30%

It identifies changes that have been made in areas such as research, writing, taking stands on issues, and perceived influence. It also identifies challenges in areas such as too little time for research and too little diversity on staffs.

These findings are important because the future of newspapers depends on their ability to serve the public in ways that other mass media cannot and because the leadership and forum functions vital to representative government are more suited to newspapers than to other media.

It seems clear that editorial pages can help set and build agendas for public officials, candidates in elections and other citizens, especially at the local level. They may not always be successful in telling readers what to do or how to vote, but they do help determine what issues readers will consider.

Additional studies, including surveys of public officials and other readers, would of course be needed to determine how editorials are used and what influence they have. But the sort of assistance that readers must have to get more effectively involved in their governments is increasingly available to them through editorial pages.

NCEW member Ernest C. Hynds is professor and head of the department of journalism in the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. The 1994 study was partially funded by the James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Newspaper Management Studies at the college.
COPYRIGHT 1995 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Hynds, Ernest C.
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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