Two weeks ago, The New York Times drew the ire of Ukrainians and Ukraine’s allies for an editorial suggesting Ukraine might have to cede the territories occupied by Russia to end the war.

The piece was signed by the editorial board, which is basically a group of 14 opinion journalists. NYT’s editorial board does not speak for the paper’s newsroom. Indeed, it is a totally independent body that’s not reporting to the editor-in-chief, similarly to the broader Opinion section. 

As former editorial page editor James Bennet once boasted, “[t]he first anyone in the newsroom learned of the board’s editorial about the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, for instance, was when we posted it to The Times’s website.” While the editorial board is “an institutional voice,” the group “is not the voice of the institution as a whole,” Bennet explained.

The editorial about Ukraine is hardly the most high-profile case that got The New York Times in trouble for an opinion piece. James Bennet himself had to resign two years ago after he’d made a decision to publish the notorious column by conservative lawmaker Tom Cotton who suggested deploying federal troops in US cities amid the protests against racial violence.

While the editorial about the war in Ukraine and Tom Cotton’s column are very different cases, one pattern in the backlash is similar – readers don’t pay attention to the subtle difference between “an institutional voice” and “the voice of the institution as a whole.” Too often they simply attribute the editorial board’s view to the whole newspaper – and the paper’s reputation suffers in the process, along with the reputation of news journalism more broadly.

See, for example, criticism of the Ukraine editorial by prominent Ukrainian economist and former government minister Tymofiy Mylovanov. In his response, Mylovanov doesn’t make any distinctions between NYT’s editorial board, NYT’s newsroom, and NYT as an institution. While we might hope for a better understanding of how journalism works from someone like Mylovanov, his post is indicative – and Mylovanov is probably better informed than most NYT readers.

Like many vices plaguing journalism in the 2020s, this problem got intensified with the shift to online. The difference between news and opinion is just not as visually obvious as it was the case with print newspapers, leading to confusion. (“Op-ed” is a shortened version of “opposite the editorial page” because opinion pieces used to be printed literally opposite to the news articles.)

As The Conversation notes, strict distinction between news and editorial “is a particularly American way of operating” as news consumers in Europe and elsewhere “usually expect their newspapers to have a point of view, representing a particular party or ideology.” Publications like The Economist are famous for having a stance – while readers might not agree with some views, at least they understand what they are getting.

But The New York Times and its biggest US competitors aim to be competitive in Europe. As The Fix previously reported, NYT is already among the biggest news sources for the European audience along some dimensions. Even if most Americans understood this cultural staple of American journalism (and they probably don’t), incorporating a historically diverse audience requires more effort in making sure the readers don’t get confused. 

What to do about this problem? It’s unlikely that The New York Times will do away with the practice of running opinion pieces signed by the editorial board – though that would be the cleanest solution in the age of fragile boundaries between news and opinion. However, more modest steps could help as well – such as a more visible disclaimer that the editorial board doesn’t necessarily represent the view of The New York Times.

Photo by David Smooke on Unsplash