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It’s time to rethink the opinion section

July 30, 2020 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

Newspapers are more than just news. They’re also an integral part of the national conversation through their opinion columns. That, in fact, is how many newspapers (particularly weekend editions) market themselves; with huge banners above the masthead proclaiming which columnist is being most opinionated that day.

Recently, though, the two disciplines of news and opinion have started butting up against one another. The twin crises of lack of trust and falling revenue have exposed the sore spot where news and opinion clash to the detriment of the whole.

When words collide

News and opinion are the two sides of the coin for newspapers, each valuable in its own right. It’s unthinkable that any title should drop one for fear of impoverishing the other. However, of late, things are heating up.

Take the latest flashpoint: Almost 300 journalists at The Wall Street Journal sent a letter (later leaked) to the paper’s publisher arguing that a lack of fact-checking standards in its opinion columns were undermining the credibility of the newsgathering operation. The letter itself is worth a read simply for the examples it cites. However, the key point is as follows:

“Many readers already cannot tell the difference between reporting and Opinion. And reporters nonetheless face questions about the Journal’s accuracy and fairness because of errors published in Opinion.

“Some of us have been told by sources that they won’t talk to us because they don’t trust that the WSJ is independent of the editorial page; many of us have heard sources and readers complain about the paper’s “bias” as a result of what they’ve read in Opinion.”

Experts excluded

Perceived bias is, of course, one of the most frequently cited reasons for a lack of trust in news. One of the letter’s signatories’ suggestions for improving that is to impose an even stricter division between the two sides of the paper’s content, specifically to remove accusations of bias.

The tension is exacerbated by the way newspapers use social media to attract audiences, where that division isn’t enforced as rigidly. The main Twitter or Facebook channel is as likely to push an opinion piece as it would news content, which only contributes to readers’ confusion. Even when papers have dedicated opinion accounts, there is crossover.

That’s especially bad given that opinion writers are, for the most part, hired for their ability to create conversation. There is considerable incentive for columnists to be controversial or deliberately strident on some arbitrary issue, because they are rewarded for driving views. That controversy may be good for newspaper businesses in the short-term. However, when it undermines trust in the news side of the house, it undermines the business as a whole.

The issue is further compounded because truly expert voices often do not have a place in the opinion section. Star columnists are usually celebrities, or generalist writers reacting to the news cycle. They don’t have the depth or breadth of expertise to comment on, say, epidemiology or the social aspects of managing a pandemic.

Solutions journalism

So how do we counter misinformation from popular columnists without hamstringing their ability to attract readers?

One potential solution is, as the WSJ news team suggests, to allow the news team to rebut and call out inaccuracies in columnists’ content. That, at least, would lean into the transparency that I’ve previously argued is necessary for the restoration of trust.

Newspapers could also follow the model used by The Conversation and commission genuine experts to write on their chosen topics. Their journalists are on hand to filter that expertise and make it understandable to the public. The Conversation UK’s chief executive Chris Waiting told me that, at times of crisis like the pandemic, news publishers are rewarded for doing so. As Waiting said:

“From February or March, we saw our traffic go through the roof because everything was changing, and nobody knew what was going on. So, the public was just really hungry to have experts not only explain the current moment, but to put it in context.”

Whiting points out that there have been more than a few successful doctors and scientists who have had secondary careers in the media off the back of their expertise. However, he says the majority of academics balk at appearing in newspapers for fear of being misrepresented.

“A lot of academics are quite skeptical of talking to the mainstream media. They’ve seen their work misrepresented or over-sensationalized. The trust between the two has broken down and so the partnership that we create is very important to that.”

View from the audience

The recent row over The Guardian carrying content with which its core audience disagreed shows that you can’t please everyone. But if that content is demonstrably coming from experts and not attention-seeking columnists it’s more defensible.

Opinion columnists are part and parcel of a title’s appeal. And without them a newspaper would lose part of its identity. That said, the industry needs to recognize the act of giving them a platform is perceived as a tacit endorsement of their views, and that those views are inextricably linked to how the public views the news outlet as a whole.

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