Ethics in column-writing

By Jared Anderson

(Note: As someone who wants to go into column-writing, I found two articles that really piqued my interest and that deal with ethics in column-writing. The two columns are not related other than the fact that they show some ethical concerns in columns. I thought that was enough of a common thread to post a blog about)

A column in the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard protests a series of articles written by the Nigerian Syndicated columnist Dele Sobowale, pointing out ethical flaws in Sobowale's writing process.
Sobowale "has this tendency of raising issues he has scanty information about," the Vanguard column said, pointing our inconsistencies in the information in Sobowale's recent columns.
"Column-writing is surely a sacred privilege," writes the Vanguard. It "demands of the writer to constantly bring to bear the ethics of the trade: objectivity, fairness and accuracy."
This brings to light the importance of doing ones own reporting, even as a columnist. Even though a columnist is paid for his or her opinion, and to add color and analysis to current news stories, a columnist is still a journalist - and as the Pew Research Center's Principles of Journalism says, Journalism is, at its essence, "a discipline of verification."
In the Pioneer Press, columnist Ruben Rosario writes about the responses he has gotten from readers after his column about Pre-Kindergarten education. He prints quotes from readers who disagree with his ideas and are upset with an ambiguous line from the column seen to be taking shots at the Catholic Church.
Rosario uses this new column to explain his writing, pointing out that his line was in no way a criticism of the church, but was merely a way of saying that even respected institutions can be wrong about certain things.
Rosario refuses to apologize for the line, which I think is a good decision. He explained what he meant, and then he stood by his words. Too often, journalists succumb to public pressure to apologize for controversial decisions just to appease readers. There are cases where apologies are neccessary, but journalism is about telling the truth more than about trying not to offend readers. A columnist shouldn't have to apologize for his opinion.
One place where Rosario's column gets into muddy ethical ground, however, is when he begins to print unflattering comments from readers and pokes fun at those who criticize him, derogatorily calling one a "tea-party type" and casting a criticizing light on conservatives as he notes the man with the Bush-Cheney bumper sticker who cut him off in traffic.
A column doesn't seem like an appropriate place to chastise or make fun of opponents without giving them a chance to explain themselves. Even though a column is meant to be opinion-based, that doesn't mean the columnist should get free reign to paint his opponents as uneducated (because they don't speak multiple languages like Rosario makes it clear he does) or as angry drivers. It's not a black-and-white line of what should be printed in column, but it seems a bit questionable ethically to me.