Working with the public to differentiate 
between facts and opinions in news

Note: A version of this piece first appeared in the Autumn edition of our member newsletter. Please consider subscribing to it here.

Journalism is frequently criticized for being ‘biased’, often because the distinction between news and opinion is not made clear to the reader.

Opinion articles are sometimes flagged by highlighting the writer’s name or including a photo. However, as news media seek to establish their brand, it is not unusual for beat reporters to have their photo along with their byline.

Other times, opinion articles are labelled as opinion, editorial, comment or analysis — terms that a study earlier this year by the American Press Institute found the public does not necessarily understand.

The result is that the reader is unclear whether the article is delivering the facts, a point of view, or something else. As a result s/he may conclude the paper or the reporter is biased. That take-away is trust-damaging, especially when the reader repeats that unchallenged assessment on social media.

The need to distinguish between news and opinion has been addressed as a widely accepted standard of journalistic practice. The Toronto Star states that sounds practice demands a clear distinction for readers between news and opinion.

All content, moreover, that contains explicit opinion or personal interpretation should be clearly identified as opinion or analysis, as appropriate. Similarly, the Canadian Association of Journalists calls for clear identification of news and opinion so that the audience knows which is which.

The public editors of the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star have taken up this issue. However, the problem has not been resolved since the then-New York Times public editor wrote ten years ago about the challenges of — and need to — distinguish news from opinion.

According to the American Press Institute, labeling opinion pieces is ‘crucial’ to combating the allegation of biased journalism. It convincingly argues that labels on all opinion and news articles give readers “a road map to their content, instead of asking readers to interpret everything on their own”.

Trust in the news faces another hurdle when consumers conflate talk shows and news that are part of 24/7 cable programming. One reader described it as “hour after hour of reporters telling us what they think about the people in the news instead of reporting the news.” A lack of clear distinction for those who tune in may confuse analysts, pundits, or ‘experts’ with reporters.

Recently, the NNC issued a decision that underlined the opinion-or-news issue. In Lascaris vs Toronto Sun, an opinion article was flagged by including the writer’s name in capital letters in the headline, but the article itself was filed as “news.” The NNC said that lack of clarity could leave the reader confused about the nature of the article, and could damage the trust readers have in the media.

The NNC supports best practices that employ strong, consistent measures to distinguish news from opinion articles. Members may have good practices and ideas about what that looks like: different colour or different font, labels for every article, consistent placement, standard agreement on terms like analysis or opinion, explainers for readers, expanded codes of ethics, and other helpful distinctions that improve reader understanding — and trust.

— Pat Perkel is the executive director with the National NewsMedia Council of Canada.

This story was edited by: Brent Jolly, editor, Acts of Journalism. He can be reached at: bjolly@mediacouncil.ca

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