The fine line between comment and news

I know, I’ve been a bad little blogger. I’ve been kind of busy getting engaged and stuff lately and I haven’t had a chance to seethe. But fear not, today I come equipped with visual aids!

I’ve never been a fan of columnists writing news stories (or, more commonly, news reporters writing columns). First of all, they require an entirely different skill set and style of writing. Being good at one doesn’t necessarily transfer to being good at another.

But more than that, I think crossing over is dangerous because attaching one’s opinion to something immediately compromises their ability to report objectively on related somethings.

Now, if you will all indulge me on somewhat of a tangent (I’ll come back to the column v. news issue, fear not), I’ve never really like Christie Blatchford’s writing. One need only look at a post such as this (or this, which preceeded it).

And now we bring the two themes together. Blatchford often blurs the line between reportage and opining, but the Globe usually does a good job of distinguishing the two by giving her columns a distinct column style: Left justified instead of full, bigger byline, headshot etc.

Something like this, from today’s Globe:

Blatchford’s been doing a lot of columns from Afghanistan lately and, while I still loathe her style, I like the fact that the Globe is doing some human-interest stuff on the soldiers there (running them above the fold on A1 is another matter for another rant).

Which is why I was really confused by the front-page story in yesterday’s Globe. See if you can spot the difference:

That’s right, no headshot and fully justified – must be a news story right? But wait, that’s an awfully big byline. Is it a column?

The answer is found on the turn (and in the writing style; it’s a column. Over on A4 (or whever it went, I can’t remember for sure), the piece is left justified like other Globe columns.

So what the hell happened on A1?

I know it seems like a small thing – perhaps a copy editor was having a bad day – but it’s something I thought the Globe was a little above. People need to know whether they’re reading opinion or news. And with someone like Blatchford, who has been known to do both, the burden of responsibility is magnified.


  1. Now, I’m the biggest layout geek you’ll find, but I really don’t think text alignment is going to distinguish columns from articles. I agree with your point, but seeing as the average person doesn’t know what justification even means, I don’t know that this particular case warrants such a harsh reaction.

  2. In general, I agree with your point about justification. The problem here is that justification (along with other things like headshots, different fonts for the lead etc.) is what the Globe uses to distinguish commentary from news reporting.

    It’s not the justification that bothers me, it’s what it stands for. The Globe failed to clearly distinguish Blatchford’s column from a standard news item.

  3. I also think that you’ll find the average person does notice this difference in justification, whether subconsciously or visually as they’re reading.

  4. That’s odd. It’s also missing a drop cap and a light headline, which are standard feature for columns or feature pieces.

    The absence of a headshot shouldn’t worry you, though. They’re mostly useless as a distinction between news and opinion. You’ll notice that sometimes there won’t be any headshots on John Ibbitson’s columns or Murray Campbell’s, yet there will be headshots on news feature stories by Stephanie Nolen or Graeme Smith.

    It’s mostly an aesthetic consideration. A headshot gives readers a familiar face, which is important for opinion and first-person descriptive writing. But sometimes putting one in means trimming the column, or drawing attention away from the main art, or, if it’s on A1, it may break the turn in a funny place. In that case, it’s off with their heads.

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