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Carroll County Times
Carroll County Lifestyles

Legal Matters: Important differences between news articles and columns

Non-news: The Internet contains gigabytes of information. Some of it is incomplete, easily misunderstood, or just plain wrong. Some of it is nearly impossible to check out, but readers may be able to determine whether some information that raises questions in their minds is valid.

Which brings us to a Texan. He accessed a Legal Matters column that had been published in The Carroll County Times March 13 and came to a few incorrect conclusions.

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The column concerned personal protective orders, court orders that require an alleged abuser to stay away from a person who reports abuse or fear of abuse. It did not concern protective orders that are sometimes issued in civil lawsuits to prevent one side from abusing legal discovery processes to learn the other side’s trade secrets.

In Maryland, when personal protective orders are issued, a hearing is scheduled where a judge can hear testimony from both victim and accused abuser to determine whether the orders should remain in effect.

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The Texan apparently concluded that the column was advocating in favor of protective orders. He assumes correctly that the author believes a protective order can be useful to protect victims who report having been assaulted or placed in fear for their safety or lives. An order may be issued for protection pending a hearing.

“Please if you’re going to write a news story do your due diligence of both sides of an issue,” the emailer wrote. He added, “I am a victim of your state.” He did not provide details.

The emailer is correct that if any reporter were writing an opinion column that argues in favor of protective orders, the reporter should try to interview both accused and accuser. But a column that provides general information about the purpose of protective orders does not create an obligation to interview an accused or convicted abuser and/or a victim.

Whether the Texan is a victim of the Maryland court system as he alleges may be an issue for a judge to resolve. But his email reflects a point that can be confusing: the difference between a news article – which attempts to present all sides of an issue without disclosing the writer’s personal opinion – and a column, which may present some specialized information and may include the columnist’s opinion.

Newspapers try to clarify the difference between an article and a column. An article may be a news report, an interview with someone who has done something noteworthy or a feature story where experts address topics such as how mental health may be affected by isolation brought on by the pandemic.

Issue-related columns are often confined to editorial pages, to help make it clear that you are reading an author’s perspective and/or opinion rather than reports of several opposing views that the author may collect by interviewing witnesses to the event or individuals involved in the issue.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at denglelaw@gmail.com.


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