Judging your favorite columnists’ performance | Inquirer Opinion
On The Move

Judging your favorite columnists’ performance

Happy New Year!

It is the end of another year, and we are thrust into a new one. Columnists write over 50 weekly columns, without much thought on what topics become worthy of comment, as events in the sociocultural, technological, environmental, economic, political, legal, educational, and security fields unfold. Writing a column becomes a habitual task, but there must be some performance guidelines for this task, as there are for all endeavors. The end of the year is as good a time as any for a columnist to review his social contract with the public that he purports to engage through his column.

What is the purpose of writing an opinion column? There are four major ones.


Expressing “prismatic” perspectives: Opinion columnists provide personal viewpoints and perspectives on various issues. They offer a subjective lens through which readers can interpret and understand current events. The value of a column cannot be taken solely on its own merits but in conjunction with other perspectives shared in public media. It serves a “prismatic” purpose of providing rich and diversified points of view that enable a holistic, balanced understanding that enables alternative courses of action.


Explanatory appeal and explanatory power: Columnists analyze complex issues, offering insights and interpretations that are usually evident in straight news reporting. To do this, columnists must read a wide swathe of literature, from technical to social to literary. Columnists pick ideas and transform them into polished sentences and paragraphs that deliver “explanatory power” or evidence backed by scientific studies, especially with predictive and prescriptive value. Otherwise, columnists compete with one another in generating “explanatory appeal”—the sense of their readers that a complex issue is made understandable. Often, such explanatory appeal occurs when a columnist provides a longitudinal or cross-sectional context to an issue, which he can do because of the constant search for connections across time and space and across variables and factors he is obliged to do as a commentator on public issues.

Provoking debate: Opinion columns often serve as catalysts for public debate and discussion. The way columnists pose their ideas and insights may serve to provoke heated discussions among sections of the public. Often, the written word has a way of legitimizing and reinforcing the passionately held partisan ideas of a segment of the public while at the same time creating revulsion and vehement protest on the opposite segment. This serves a democratic purpose if those who are generally not attentive or unmoved by an issue begin to take notice and help bring critical thinking and the weight of numbers to help resolve the issue. It is a misconception that the general public should be informed and attentive to all issues, but it is certainly helpful if, in the course of advocacy and debate on specific issues, they weigh in and express themselves in thoughts, words, and actions.

Advocacy and mobilization: Columnists advocate for certain ideas, policies, or even long-term transformative social change. They urge the transformation of information into action. They also provide a more or less permanent media platform that attracts all kinds of people to try to get them to write about an idea, initiative, piece of information, insight, or innovation. This can be intrusive, but columnists generally welcome feedback from their readers, as this is the only way they can calibrate their work to be more responsive not only in terms of the slant and style of their writing but also about the factual basis and logic of their work.

What can go wrong?

Columnists are human beings, and they are liable to many weaknesses. They get punished when they are untruthful and inaccurate in presenting the facts that support their views. Luckily, columnists have eagle-eyed editors who help save the columnist from embarrassment and even punitive legal sanctions.

Columnists have their styles but they all aim to be clear and coherent in their writing, for without the right vocabulary, correct grammar, and logically structured arguments, they will not be understood by their readers. Simplicity is one goal that columnists often fail to achieve. The test of a columnist is not whether the above-average readers understand him, but that those who are less schooled, can.


Finally, columnists, in being provocative and engendering lively and critical public debates, must guard against being disrespectful and engaging in personal attacks. Often, columnists think that public officials and other public figures, by the very nature of their work, are fair game, but there is a line they must not cross. Ad hominem attacks will repulse a columnist’s public. In other words, columnists must not engage in calumny.


Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

[email protected]

TAGS: On The Move, rating columnists

© Copyright 1997-2024 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.