University of Sussex Students' Newspaper

The Big Collab: Should Newspapers Encourage Controversy?

Charlotte Berry

ByCharlotte Berry

May 13, 2024
Photo by The Daily Beast

By Charlotte Berry and Yesenia Mahe Darlington

Why Opinion Sections Thrive by Stirring the Pot

Should student newspaper opinion sections stir up controversy? It’s like adding hot sauce to your meal – some love the kick, while others worry it might be too spicy. But I think a little controversy is good for the soul of a student newspaper.

Controversy grabs attention. Opinion sections that toss in a few controversial takes spark conversations, get people talking, and make sure our voices are heard in amidst the minefield of current events. Objectivity can become boring and repetitive, people read newspapers to learn and laugh – preventing controversy could make a paper seem sterile. Opinion and controversy help you to understand the facts, whilst keeping it interesting. For me, opinion was the gateway drug into journalism. Only after I had read an opinion article did I feel strongly enough to write in agreement or opposition to it. 

Controversy pushes us to question, analyse, and maybe even change our minds once in a while.

Which brings me to the brain food factor. Controversy isn’t just drama for drama’s sake; it makes us better humans. When we read opinions that challenge our own, it helps us to develop critical thinking skills. Controversy pushes us to question, analyse, and maybe even change our minds once in a while. It’s how we grow, learn, and become more open-minded individuals – and more equipped students!

Controversy is good for society too. Think about it – some of the biggest changes in history came from shaking things up and challenging the status quo. Entire monarchies have been crushed and revolutions organised from a radical idea. Opinion sections that dare to be controversial can spark movements, challenge power structures, and give a voice to the underdogs. By controlling the content of an opinion section, you control the kinds of authors that get the opportunity to be published. Authors can represent the perspectives of entirely different cultures and lifestyles to your own. By giving authors a chance to write about their side of the story, we could be amplifying the voices of a marginalised community. It’s like lighting a fire under social progress. And if that community so happens to be bad news, and it generates a few scary supporters, we now know who to avoid in the club. 

Now, we hear the sceptics out there. Controversy can sometimes feel like stirring the pot. There’s the risk of spreading misinformation, fueling division, and just making a big mess. But here’s the thing: a little controversy doesn’t have to mean chaos. We can keep things civil, fact-check like pros, and stick to our journalistic ethics. The Badger team is pretty damn good at their jobs. Letting valuable stories on campus stay unwritten for the sake of keeping the peace would promote ignorance and silence the truth. Besides, what would be the point of a student newspaper if we did what we were told? 

What’s more, controversy helps to bypass editorial bias (although this editor may be a little biased). An editor may not agree with the opinions they publish, but they wouldn’t be fulfilling their civic duties if they did. Controversy diversifies the paper and helps keep it neutral (which is very different from being objective).  With great controversy comes great responsibility, after all.

We can dish out those hot takes without resorting to name-calling or spreading fake news.

So, here’s the deal: let’s embrace the controversy, but keep it classy. We can dish out those hot takes without resorting to name-calling or spreading fake news. By setting some ground rules for respectful debate, we can keep the conversation going without encouraging malice. Student newspaper opinion sections should totally encourage controversy. It adds flavour to our pages, gets our brains buzzing, and maybe even changes the world a little bit. 

Better Safe than Sorry: Objectivity as an Essential for Safeguarding

Newspapers, and subsequently journalists, are an essential means of informing the public on current affairs and relevant topics of discussion. News sources must be factual and impartial, delegating the task of offering differing viewpoints to the opinion or comment section of a paper. This section also provides the opportunity to discuss topics that readers believe to be important which may not be covered in the regular news cycle. While it may seem like a natural reaction to agree that platforming multiple sides of an argument is a good thing, when it comes to subjects plagued with controversy, the outcome can only be harmful. 

This often occurs when it comes to subjects relating to race, religion, sexuality, and gender. Encouraging controversy directly affects marginalised groups as they become prime candidates for harassment and online abuse. This can be perfectly encapsulated by the ongoing debate surrounding trans people. When an article is approached in good faith and aims to spread awareness or relay new information, it might only serve to reignite existing prejudices. When an opposing view is presented that denounces the validity or rights of trans people, it spreads further hatred and amplifies that perspective in an echo chamber. Regardless of the intent of the author, marginalised groups are caught in the crossfire between the article and the public despite never signing up to be part of the discourse. 

Encouraging controversy directly affects marginalised groups as they become prime candidates for harassment and online abuse.

Additionally, while it is the ethical responsibility of the press to remain impartial, there will always be human shortcomings. They may be impartial in a basic sense, but plenty of papers do have right-wing or left-wing biases that affect their readers. For example, The Guardian is commonly viewed as favouring left-wing ideology, whereas The Daily Mail is infamously sympathetic to right-wing beliefs. This then translates into having a bias toward which authors are platformed, clearly demonstrated by recent articles. ‘It’s clearer than ever that Brexit has failed – let’s not inflict its miseries on young people’ is the headline in The Guardian’s Opinion section. In The Daily Mail’s Comment section, an article opens with the statement that “we know from a wealth of experience over the years that the political Left have little respect for freedom of speech”.

This may be a more exaggerated demonstration of what type of controversial opinions are published by each paper, yet it still highlights how partisan the information being presented is. They only legitimise one angle of the argument, but for controversial opinions to be approached in good faith, an opposing view should be presented within the same platform. As this is rarely the case, readers do not receive a well-rounded understanding of the topic. This partiality is exaggerated as individuals tend to prefer to read from only one or two newspapers; this type of loyalty results in people forming their opinions based upon others who have ingrained biases. Indeed, it is irresponsible for newspapers to encourage controversy while not presenting the full picture. 

Opinions are not always grounded in facts and may be used to serve the bias media has.

The opinion section can be people’s first exposure to topics they had not considered before. They can have a great impact on people’s subsequent own judgement; as it is the first encounter of this information, what is presented is often seen as superior and factual. However, opinions are not always grounded in facts and may be used to serve the bias media has. Misinformation can be easily spread when unchallenged, which in turn leads to an ideological echo chamber that also discourages fact-checking. Marginalised people are the victims of controversies, encouraged through a form of media that has implicit bias.

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