My students often ask me about the difference between a reporter and a columnist. Well, here’s a the NY Times Op/Ed editor answering the question:

Andrew Rosenthal: The license and responsibilities of an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times are similar in some fundamental ways to those of a news reporter but profoundly different in other ways.

First, the similarities. A columnist is subject to the same standards of factual accuracy as any writer in The Times, on any page. If a columnist writes that something happened on a certain date, or that the government spent a certain amount of money on something, or that a specific number of people have died in the war in Iraq, to pick a few examples, it is his or her responsibility to make certain that information is correct. Columnists must make sure that when they describe an event they are being accurate in their description. When they quote someone, they are required to do so accurately. Errors that are made must be corrected openly and quickly.

Columnists are required to follow basic New York Times style — on the use of profanity and vulgarity, for example. But they do have more freedom to express themselves than news reporters, in big and small ways. When it comes to Times style rules, for example, we do not require them to use the honorific, Mr., Ms. and so on, if they choose not to. (The Public Editor has that right too.) One of our columnists hates to use “whom,” when it feels awkward, so we bend that rule. Maureen Dowd frequently uses humorous nicknames for public officials (Donald Rumsfeld was often Rummy in her columns), and that is O.K. too.

Most of all, columnists are not only free to express their personal opinions, that is the primary part of their job. We pay them to have strong opinions and to express them sharply and with great style. They can choose any subject they want to write about, within the bounds of decency and appropriate journalistic inquiry (although we do ask them, with varying degrees of lack of success, to avoid directly endorsing a candidate for office). All of our columnists have areas of interest and expertise that they will return to frequently, but the subject matter of any given column is up to them. They do not have to clear them in advance with me, nor do I exercise any control over the positions they take. The columnists have a very personal relationship with their readers, and the readers deserve to hear directly from the columnists.

While columnists must adhere to The Times’s high standards of factual accuracy, they are allowed great latitude in characterizing events, people or issues in a way that expresses an opinion. They are free, for example, to say that they believe that the Catholic Church’s hierarchy treats nuns unfairly, even if the members of that hierarchy deny it. They are not even required to include that denial in their columns. Columns are not required, or intended, to be fair and dispassionate accounts of events. They are by nature one-sided. Columnists may find it useful to give the opposing views on any position they take, or they may not, and it’s entirely up to them.

A columnist can be tough, acerbic, playful, joyful, angry, chagrined, outraged or anything else — within the general bounds of decency that are embodied in the values of The Times.

Straight from the horse’s mouth.

Upon refelction — “often” may be too strong. A few students, over the years.