Let me start by saying I don’t lose the irony that this entire post is, in fact, going to be my opinion.
With that out of the way (phew!), I’ve been trying to spend more time interacting with writing groups on social media, and not too long ago, someone happened to make the comment that opinion or editorial writing had no value compared to “real” journalism. They accepted the philosophy of Bill Bullard, who quipped that “Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding.” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard before and likely isn’t going to die any time soon.
But it’s also a sentiment that, to me, is flat-out wrong.
I’ll make it clear that I have intense respect for “real” journalists, the people who go out and report news and studies with serious integrity related to the facts. They are absolutely storytellers in their own right and have a fantastic understanding of how to both inform and engage people quickly. Done well, those stories can change how people think and inspire them to take action, even if the journalist achieves relative objectivity in the way they report.
But opinions can be transformative, too. As an example, I’ll point to Steve Jobs. As Simon Sinek summarizes in his TED talk, for years, people believed that to sell well, you need to focus on the product, highlighting its features and quality. The “what” came first, and the “why” was secondary. But Jobs believed that the real way to engage people and market was to tap into emotions. If you could communicate the why behind your business and get your audience to feel something first, then you could find the people who shared your vision and get them to respond not just to a single product, but to any product you made. That’s why Apple customers don’t just buy iPhones. They buy music players, televisions, speakers, computers, and all kinds of tech gear. If Jobs hadn’t asserted his thinking and challenged the status quo, then Apple wouldn’t be the successful company it is today.
Or take Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He didn’t step up to the podium and give an “I have the facts” speech. He simply communicated a dream. A vision. An opinion. His work dramatically changed the course of the Civil Rights Movement. And in the same way, people today lobby for different shifts based on what they believe, including women’s rights and sexual orientation. Protections and liberties that are in place exist only because enough people came to hold the same views.
Some of the most well-known and respected authors of all time are also some of the best thinkers, writing their observations and concepts about the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, wrote many essays on nature, self-reliance, and experiential living. Jean-Jacques Rousseau championed the idea that the people had the right to rule, and he also promoted education and moral character. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote on everything from history to religion. Should we ditch all of their manuscripts simply because they don’t require fact-checkers or appear on the front page of The New York Times?
In sum, writers have penned opinions–and subsequently changed the world–practically since the beginning of time. This is not to say that their work is superior to traditional journalism, but rather to say that neither form of writing should be minimized. Both have purpose, influence, and sway, because people always will want to understand as much as they want to connect. They want to know what other people experience and feel like insiders. That’s one of the reasons why real-life autobiographies, along with reality TV, are so popular.
So if you want to write a news piece to inform, do it. If you want to share your views or a story from your life, do it. And it’s okay to do both–I’ve written advice-oriented pieces about my experiences or ideologies on the same day as I’ve written about a science study, and often back-to-back. You are not limited or confined, and you shouldn’t let anyone discredit you because you’ve written one style or the other. The only rule is that you write in a way that is clear and easy to understand. Follow that, and to hades with the trolls.