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Our View: Election coverage: How not to polarize

The Denver Post’s editorial board made a bold decision in asking four freelance columnists to take a hiatus from writing between the primary and general elections. The board will instead focus on in-house opinions to “bring depth and understanding to the complex issues,” Megan Schrader, editor of the Post’s editorial pages, said in a note to readers.

In an email, Schrader explained her decision. “Fairness during the campaign season is something opinion editors struggle with every year, and it was something I really started considering when Denver Post columnist Ian Silverii’s wife announced she was running for Congress,” she said. “That obvious conflict for one columnist prompted me to consider other less obvious conflicts other columnists might have.

“I struggle with whether opinion columnists, myself included, do a disservice to America when we engage with polarizing issues and fail to bring nuance and depth to our analysis. There is a rich history in America of opinion journalists using sharp barbs in their language to get their point across, and I certainly have at times not pulled my punches, but at this juncture, we could all stand for a bit more policy in our daily diet and a bit less partisanship.”

The Post’s decision makes sense. We all have biases and, sometimes, soft underlying conflicts. It’s golden when opinion pages host columnists with strong viewpoints who have something to say. Yet, the result can be the opposite of what we’re wanting to achieve. It can backfire. And it’s an irony that stings – when a column is more polarizing than elevating of discourse.

We appreciate Schrader’s attention on “nuance and depth to our analysis,” which requires refined skills. It’s much easier for an opinion writer to swing wildly and loudly. Election season gives the green light to sharpen knives and mark hard lines. Some columnists leave no compromise for a seemingly small, subtle position that might crack open a door for readers to feel welcome enough to step right in.

Complicated issues deserve deeper examination. This is closer to how we make choices in our own lives. Why wouldn’t we approach elections the same way?

A variety of voices makes for vibrancy and balance. Yet, a fine line exists, a distinction when the conversation tilts from peeling back the layers of an issue toward throwing weight behind the political party we want in power. Sometimes, it’s blatant with an ask for a vote. Other times, it’s in the trash-talking about challengers. It might be barely noticeable except for one word, which hold multitudes. This is when the divide widens. And it’s not what we’re after.

What we do want is to understand candidates’ actions, histories and relationships, more than promises and potential. For The Journal’s election coverage, candidates in significant races were invited to speak their truths directly to readers in guest columns. We asked, who are you? Why should you be elected – or re-elected? These columns will begin next Wednesday.

Wes Rowell, our fantastic, versatile editorial cartoonist, will illustrate portraits of each candidate.

Our plan frees up space to consider ballot issues and opine on all things election related. We look forward to letters to hear what’s on your mind. With this framework in place, we’ll get to freestyle a little, too.

This year, our choice is to include guest columnists. And, you betcha, we will endorse candidates.

Schrader said she particularly liked the Post’s opinion columns from John Brackney “whose goal in life is to reunify America even as we disagree sharply over policy.” In one about engaging with others, Brackney wrote that citizens “matured to understand that not every fight needs to be waged every day.”

Wise words, especially during election season.