Roles of opinions in journalism
Opinions from informed experts and seasoned journalists provide valuable insights to better understand complex issues, but there are pitfalls we must teach as well
This week, I uploaded a new explainer on ‘opinion journalism’ to ANNIE Toolkit. The following TL;DR is a slightly modified version of that entry. I hope it gives you some ideas about how to discuss the roles of opinions in the news with your students (I will be writing a few related activities in the coming weeks as well).
[Update on 13 June 2023]
Since some of you asked, yes, “bloviate” is a real word :) Here is how four different dictionaries define the term:
to speak a lot in an annoying way as if you are very important (Cambridge)
to speak or write verbosely and windily (Merriam-Webster)
to talk at length, esp in an insubstantial but inflated manner (Collins)
to talk or write in a way that shows that you think you know a lot and have something important to say, when in fact you do not know much and have nothing important to say (Oxford Learner’s)
Opinions are an integral part of news and journalism. They play a crucial role in shaping public discourse and providing depth and perspective to news stories.
But they pose challenges for the news audience, too, especially when it comes to evaluating the validity and soundness of those opinions.
Often, we associate opinions expressed in news reports with the news organisation or journalist presenting them, even though they actually come from the individuals who were interviewed.
Distinguishing opinions in journalism from opinion journalism helps us navigate opinions in the news more effectively.
Opinions in news reports vs. opinion journalism
When a significant news event occurs, such as a fatal ferry accident, multiple news reports feature interviews with victims, rescue workers, government officials, and others who express their opinions.
These opinions provide insights and perspectives, informing us of different viewpoints related to the event. Some of them may be very subjective and biased, or not based on any facts or evidence, but they are included in the news reports to tell us what people think of what happened.
It is important to note that these opinions are not the journalists' own, but rather, those of the individuals interviewed.
Some might argue that journalists can still express their views through the use of selective quotes, paraphrases, and other reporting techniques. It is true, and there are some ways for the audience to gauge reporters’ editorial inclinations.
A NICE source analysis is one way to assess each quote and sound bite in news reports, for example. Comparing multiple news reports on the same news topic from different journalists in terms of news angles and news values can be another method we can employ.
News coverage of a fatal ferry accident could also include various editorials, columns, and commentaries discussing the actions of ferry companies, rescue workers, the government, and other stakeholders.
These written opinions and broadcast commentaries fall under the category of opinion journalism.
In opinion journalism, reporters, writers, and commentators share their viewpoints, offering the audience perspectives that could help make sense of the issues, understand the context, and develop more informed perceptions.
Good opinion journalism can challenge misguided assumptions and prompt critical thinking.
Opinion journalism must be fact-based
While opinion journalism does not adhere strictly to the traditional definition of journalism, it should still uphold fundamental principles such as verification, independence, transparency, and accountability (VITA).
Opinion journalists must support their views with facts and evidence, ensuring their arguments are grounded in reality.
For instance, an opinion columnist advocating for increased immigration must provide valid statistical evidence to demonstrate the positive economic impact of immigrants.
While not everyone may agree with this opinion, it is essential for opinion journalists to maintain accuracy and build arguments on well-researched facts and expert knowledge.
The Society of Professional Journalists says in its ethical guideline that:
“Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context...”;
“…deny favoured treatment to advertisers and special interests… remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”
Bloviation refers to opinions that lack substance, depth, or factual support. People who bloviate make wild assertions and rely heavily on emotional rhetoric.
Unfortunately, it is also very common in our news ecosystem.
Bloviation can hinder productive discussions by confusing the public and distorting the discourse. It could mislead the audience with illogical arguments that lack rationality and coherence.
Typical bloviation relies on cherry-picked facts, selective context, fallacies, or conspiracy narratives, rather than sound evidence and reasoned analysis of verified information.
Where do we see opinion journalism and bloviation?
Most news organisations label opinions in one way or another so that the news audience knows what they are.
Labels like opinion, review, column, editorial, commentary, and so on indicate that the content is not a news report.
But not many people pay attention to such labels, especially when the content is shared through messaging apps and on social media.
One of the clues a discerning news audience should look for is the use of the first-person voice. The words “I” and “we” are used to express opinions most of the time.
Phrases like “I think” and “I believe” are good indicators that what you are reading, watching, or listening to is an opinion.
Linguistic devices of persuasion, such as exaggeration, emotionally loaded words, sarcasm, and parody, are other clues.
FOB: What a smart news audience should ask
To get the most value out of opinion journalism, the following guideline helps:
Familiarise yourself with the facts surrounding the news event, topics, and issues first with news reports and other sources that do not contain authors’ opinions.
Be open-minded. Be ready to accept that people look at things differently and that you can learn from others.
Learn to recognise the difference between authentic opinion journalism and fact-free tirades that masquerade as opinion journalism, which we call bloviation.
Always ask yourself if the content is a Fact-based Opinion or Bloviation (FOB).
Lastly, we decided to start ANNIE Connect, our monthly one-hour online discussion for educators and journalists to share teaching tips and resources, on 21 July 2023. Details will be announced in this newsletter nearer the time.