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The art of the opinion piece, with Bobby Ghosh
What makes a good opinion piece? We asked Bloomberg Opinion's Bobby Ghosh.
Does a good opinion piece have to be backed up by facts? Or does the word ‘opinion’ give journalists the freedom to make statements that don’t require verification? We asked Bobby Ghosh, a columnist and editor at Bloomberg Opinion, because we wanted to better understand the difference between a good opinion piece and a bad opinion piece.
Bobby has been at Bloomberg for five years, where he writes, commissions and edits opinion columns with a special focus on geopolitics. He’s also a member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. Bobby has also worked as a Global Affairs Analyst for CNN and as Managing Editor of Quartz.
We met Bobby when he was our Editor in Chief at Hindustan Times. And so when we caught up with him at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, we got to ask him a few questions.
The full interview was edited for brevity and clarity. You can listen here, or watch it here:
In Old News: Some newsrooms have used the tag of opinion to justify publishing editorials that carry misinformation or harmful narratives. What are your views on that?
An institution can't take the line that, oh, this person doesn't work for us. And therefore, you know, their opinion is their opinion, regardless of the facts. I think that's a very dangerous road. Most readers are not going to make the distinction, and nor should they make the distinction between a person writing an op ed, say who's on staff, and then someone from the outside. When you read an opinion piece in Bloomberg, for instance, where I work, part of the reason you're reading it is because you trust Bloomberg.
The institutional reputation is part of what draws you to it. Part of what gives the piece credibility. So, no, I don't think institutions can get away [with it]. Accidents will happen. You know, we've all made mistakes even in sort of news reporting sometimes facts will, you know, facts will slip through the cracks. You will make the wrong... you’ll pick the wrong piece of data you'll, you know, you'll misquote somebody without meaning to.
But there shouldn't be an absence of rigor. There should be every attempt made to make sure the facts are correct. And if you're caught out or someone points out you made a mistake, then it's your business to then correct it and issue a correction and if necessary, an apology.
In Old News: What drew you to opinion writing in journalism in the first place?
Well, I'd had a long career as a correspondent, as an editor. And towards the end of that period, I started doing television hits, just as an expert. That gave me an opportunity for the first time to really express my opinions. As a journalist, you always have them. But the challenge is to keep them out of your stories.
But on television, for the first time, I was expressing my opinions out. And then when the opportunity came to to become an opinion writer, I felt that it was a chance to exercise a new muscle in the brain and try — a chance to do something new. I was nervous about it. I was not very confident about it. Initially. It took me about, I would say, five or six months to be fully confident in my ability. My instinct was always to write both sides. Here's what one side thinks. Here's what the other side thinks. That's how you were trained as a reporter. But over a period of time, I became more confident about expressing my own opinions.
I still have the muscle memory of being a correspondent, and so I tend to call as many people as I can. I tend to do reporting before I express an opinion. But at the end of the day, the the challenge remains to filter out all the noise and express myself.
In Old News: Is there a difference between analysis and opinion writing?
It's a crucial question. The main difference between analysis and opinion is that opinion must come with prescription and analysis is is part of opinion. You have to base your opinion on facts, on analysis, on a sort of experience, on reading, on talking to as many people as possible. But at the end of the day, what distinguishes a good opinion piece is if you have Rx, a prescription.
It's not enough to say, here's a big problem that is happening in one part of the world. You need to provide the reader with some sense of how that problem can be solved, how it ought to be solved, who can solve that problem. That's the difference. Prescription, prescription, prescription. You have to have a prescription.
In Old News: What role do you think opinion journalism plays in the current environment of very polarised world views?
Well, opinion journalism, frankly, is is among the oldest forms of journalism. In the early days of newspapers, people didn't report just the facts. There was always opinion. Journalists were much more confident in expressing themselves. I think that goes too far. I think there's always going to be room for opinion. Opinion’s going to be important as long as it is informed, as long as the reader trusts you as a writer because they know your opinions come from a lot of experience, a lot of fact, a lot of reporting. I think if you can do that, then opinion, your opinion, is always going to be relevant.
In Old News: Any tips for people who want to get started in opinion writing?
Well, first and foremost, opinion pieces are an opportunity to write well, to sort of, you know, clear your throat and really enjoy the writing of it. When I think of some of my favorite opinion writers, it's not always that I've agreed with their opinion, but I've just enjoyed... I've seen how liberated they are and I've enjoyed the quality of the writing and the forcefulness of the writing. So I think of Chris Hitchens, for instance, my all time favorite opinion writer, even though I would say about 60% of the time I didn't agree with his opinions, but he was a wonderful writer. So being able to write freely is a gift that comes with opinion writing, and I enjoy that. Then after that, the, you know, the practical matter is that I want the opinion to be informed.
I don't want an opinion to just sort of pop down from the sky. I would like some evidence that the opinion writer has thought through the topic that she or he has sort of informed themselves. Now that can be projected in many ways, it can be something in the piece itself that communicates that this is a person who knows what they're talking about.
Or it might just be that I know this person's writing over a period of time I've followed them. It's in their little bio that, you know, that explains who this person is. That'll give me confidence that this is a person who knows their subject. Topic specialization is important. And then finally, it's important for opinion to be... This may sound like an oxymoron, but the opinion has to be objective. There is too much of a temptation in opinion writing to exact revenge, to be vicious, to attack people because you have the freedom to do so as an opinion writer, when that is egregious, when when people are playing the man instead of the ball, that comes through.
And I always find that sort of distasteful. The first and most important thing is make sure your opinion comes from a place of deep, deep knowledge. Decide what to do as you're going to write opinions about. Try to specialize. Don't, you know, don't express an opinion about politics one day, sports the other. I have done that, by the way.
But, no matter what you decide to write about, make sure that your opinion is deeply informed. Read, talk to people, think deeply into what you're writing about. Try to think two or three steps ahead. If you are making a prescription, what, first and foremost, how practical is that prescription? It's not enough to say, Oh, there's a war going on.
Everybody should lay down their arms. That that is a prescription. But that's not a realistic prescription. So think through what you're prescribing and then try to think one or two steps ahead. If let's say in the perfect universe, your prescription is followed. What might that lead to? And then what might that lead to? So make sure you're deeply informed and make sure you have a prescription and make sure you think through that prescription.
In Old News: What are some skills that you’ve noticed in other opinion writers that you admire?
I think all good opinion writers are reporters in their own way. Sometimes you see an opinion from someone in academia and you'll think, well, this person is not a journalist. Well, but they’re in academia, they've done the research, they've done the work. That is reporting, after a fashion. And so all the good opinion writers do the homework, whether you call it reporting research, analysis, data crunching, whatever it is, it is the homework. Do the work.
All of my colleagues, of course, I would say this, but it's true. All of my colleagues at Bloomberg Opinion bring expertise of one kind or the other to their work. But what is common amongst all of us is that we make sure we do the reporting. I write about international affairs. In my case, reporting involves sometimes traveling to places like this, meeting people outside the office.
Some opinion writers don't have to leave the office, but they read stacks and stacks of books. They read research material. They're on the phone all the time. They're talking to as many people as they can do, and they're thinking deep. They're thinking deeply about what they want to write about. So backing your argument, backing your opinion with research and reporting is basically... that's the coin of the realm. That's the essence of good opinion writing.