Knock-down, drag-out opinion death match: A point-counterpoint about the value of point-counterpoints

Ruth Robinson-

An argument is always convincing when it stands by itself.

That’s why lawyers get to cross-examine witnesses. That’s why political leaders debate each other. And that’s why point-counterpoint articles–a set of articles which lay out two sides of an issue–are valuable assets to a newspaper.

Point-counterpoint articles allow more than one side of an issue to be heard at once. Usually, opinions pieces are one-sided. All their facts are used to sway their readers in a certain direction. Their purpose is to change minds, not to represent all sides of an issue.

The danger is that readers will be convinced before they understand the whole issue. It is, after all, very easy to agree with an argument that has no opposition.

And not all readers scour the paper every issue to see if there is a response to the interesting editorial they noticed the other day. Even when a response comes in the next issue, occasional readers might only see one article.

The danger is that one of the arguments may be accepted simply because it is most convincing at the time.

Point-counterpoint articles present two sides of an issue side by side, simultaneously.

The issues are laid out for easy comparison. Readers can immediately and honestly evaluate both sides of an argument without reading every issue, and they can draw their own conclusions.

And whenever readers can do so, the newspaper is doing its job.

Point-counterpoint articles fulfill the newspaper’s responsibility to give readers complete information. This responsibility is not lessened just because the informing is happening within the opinions pages.

If anything, more care needs to be taken to ensure that many opinions are represented.

And some debates, like the current one over Equality Ride, cannot be adequately covered with a single opinions article stating a single opinion. There is too much debate, too many issues and too many arguments.

Granted, point-counterpoint articles cannot present all the issues either, but they can present the major issues for both sides. Thus, they provide a good starting point for a curious reader and a good summary for someone less interested.

And when readers have more information, they can make more informed decisions.

Point-counterpoint articles allow that information to be presented as quickly, completely and honestly as possible. Whenever a newspaper finds a tool to help readers get lots of information quickly, it should be used. The point-counterpoint format is one of those tools.

Ben Carr-

Point-counterpoint-style editorials are deceptive. They seem to open up dialogue, present the important arguments about an issue and give the reader a chance to decide what side is most rational. But that appearance is a large part of why they fail at each of these goals.

These editorials are structured by, in essence, asking a question to which the answers are either “yes” or “no,” “good” or “bad,” or some such set of two possibilities. So it looks like the options are covered.

But by framing the topic as a question with possible answers given, the editor has really already answered the question. As the topic-framer, he has decided what deserves to be within the frame of conversation and which two opinions are the reasonable ones. All that’s left is for two writers to immoderately cheerlead for their opposing views and for the readers to fall helplessly into one hole or the other.

This is much more limiting than including just one unanswered opinion about a subject. Running one opinion piece says, “This is a reasonable view.” Running a point-counterpoint piece says, “These are the two reasonable views.” When there is only one opinion to respond to, the range of possible responses is infinite; when there are two, the entire alignment of the universe is squished into two options.

Just by responding to the question, the writer of one part of a point-counterpoint implies an endorsement of how that question is asked. By targeting his piece at his opponent’s, he actually helps legitimize the opponent as holder of the other rational viewpoint–whatever he might say about that viewpoint.

It’s the same kind of problem that results when a country has a two-party system. In an election, each party feels like they have to be fundamentally different from the other party, so a candidate will take consistently opposite views to those of his opponent–regardless of the true merits of those views.

Asking, in the U.S., whether the Republicans or the Democrats are the best choice to run the country is a fundamentally limiting question. Other parties are seen as fringe groups who take less reasonable versions of the same liberal or conservative views, options only for foolhardy and extremist voters. There is really no space for new ways of looking at the question.

While going to a one-party system is not the answer to that problem, going to a one-editorial system is for this one. That way, the reader need not be pushed into one of just two ways of understanding an issue, when it is distinctly possible that both are completely wrongheaded.

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