Confusion about what’s news and what’s opinion is a big problem, but journalists can help solve it
People often don’t know whether the content they see is news or opinion, according to our recent pair of Media Insight Project surveys.
In one survey, we asked people how easy or difficult it was to see the distinctions between news and opinion in media. Just over half of Americans say it’s easy to distinguish news from opinion in news media in general.
This stat alone suggests there’s an issue.
But we were also curious if people had an easier time sorting news from opinion in certain media. It appears that’s true. People were more likely to feel like they had a handle on what’s news and what’s opinion with local TV news, which usually contains no formal commentary, and also their self-identified preferred news source.
Notably, the types of media where people expressed the least clarity were digital news sites and social media.
Only 43 percent of people said they could easily sort news from opinion on these news websites or social platforms, which are likely where the most frequent mixing of different kinds of content occurs.1 These digital environments tend to present all forms of content identically. For example, all links shared on Facebook look the same. All content on a given news website tends to follow one template.
|Ways public consumes news||Very/somewhat easy to recognize opinion||Neither difficult nor easy||Very/somewhat difficult|
|News organization used most frequently||75%||16%||8%|
|Local TV News||63%||25%||10%|
|Broadcast TV news such as NBC, CBS, or ABC||57%||23%||18%|
|Your local newspaper||55%||29%||13%|
|The news media in general||55%||20%||24%|
|National cable TV news such as Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC||54%||22%||23%|
|Public radio such as NPR||47%||34%||15%|
|Online-only news websites||43%||31%||21%|
Data Source: Question: “Many news organizations produce opinion content as well as report the news. How easy or difficult is it for you to tell the difference between the opinion content and news reporting in each of the following?”
Question: “Now thinking about news you see on social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, how easy or difficult is it for you to tell the difference between opinion content and news reporting?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.
Media Insight Project
But even if a news publisher took some care to label their opinion content as such, many people still may not understand what that means.
Fully half of the U.S. public is unfamiliar with the term “op-ed,” and nearly three in 10 said they were unfamiliar with the difference between an editorial and news story (27 percent) or a reporter and columnist (28 percent). When it comes to opinion and punditry on TV, 29 percent of people don’t know the difference between an analyst and a commentator.2 This suggests journalists not only need to provide labels, but define them as well.3
|Key journalistic terms||Public who says a little/not at all familiar|
|Analyst vs. commentator||29%|
|Reporter vs. columnist||28%|
|Editorial vs. news story||27%|
|News story vs. press release||21%|
|What a political endorsement is||19%|
|What breaking news means||11%|
Data Source: Question: “Next is a list of different terms or concepts that sometimes appear in journalism and media but may or may not be familiar to most people. How familiar are you with each term or concept?”
Question: “Next is a list of different terms or concepts that sometimes appear in journalism and media. For each one, please rate how well you think most Americans understand the difference between the terms or the meaning of the concept.”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.
Media Insight Project
Moreover, many people think they’re seeing opinionated content under the guise of news reporting.
We asked people how much opinion creeps into news reports. Many people said that news reporting they see seems closer to commentary than just the facts (42 percent), or it contains too much analysis (17 percent).4
Notably, most people also said that opinion isn’t as useful as news reporting. People were far more likely to say news is most useful when it mostly reports facts with some background or analysis (63 percent). Only 5 percent said commentary or opinion is most useful.
That means people want news with some context or background — more than just facts — but many think what they’re seeing has veered too much toward opinion. This finding, coupled with the fact that people have a hard time making distinctions, is another indicator of a problem.
Notably, journalists understand that these issues exist.
In an accompanying survey we did of journalists, 74 percent thought most people misunderstand the difference between news and opinion content. And about 4 in 5 journalists (79 percent) thought that distinguishing news from opinion would help address misinformation problems.
Tying all this together, much of the public expresses difficulty with this topic, and much of the press intuited it. News organization leaders and journalists across the industry need to take action.
* * *
We at the American Press Institute are among many people thinking through how news organizations can better dispel confusion around news and opinion content.
News organizations such as the Toronto Star and the Coloradoan have taken steps to make these distinctions more clear.
The Duke Reporters Lab has studied inconsistency in labeling, and its researchers have offered suggestions of how to improve labeling in your own news organization.
Labelling the “type of work” is one of the “Trust Indicators” that The Trust Project suggests news organizations use to build trust. (The indicators also function as structured data that tech platforms can use in content algorithms.)
The News Co/Lab at Arizona State University — which has found similar levels of difficulty among U.S. public in sorting news from opinion — highlights best practices that include transparency around news organization processes.
And Trusting News, which provides hands-on help to newsrooms who want to earn audiences’ trust, has guided newsrooms in developing ways to explain what is opinion content and why they publish it.
Going forward, our data and experience suggest news organizations would benefit from steps like the following:
- Provide explanation and analysis in news coverage, but know some readers perceive a creep toward punditry. Readers want background and context, but many people think reporting veers more toward commentary than it should. It is important to mind the difference between explaining the facts and injecting opinions.
- Make clearer distinctions between the content types you publish. In the digital environment, pages and experiences should be designed so people can quickly tell if what they’re reading is news, opinion or analysis. This should be clear on the page and also on the social media channels in which so many people encounter news.
- Explain the purpose of your opinion content and editorials. Many readers aren’t familiar with these terms, and news organizations’ reasons for publishing opinion content might not be clear to readers. Explain why you publish opinions or editorials — and consider whether your reasons for doing so should evolve — so that readers understand your goals.
- Identify possible new opportunities for your opinion sections. In thinking about your reasons for publishing opinion content, you may find other ways you can serve those goals. Beyond publishing columnists’ viewpoints, how might your opinion sections lift up diverse community voices? Moreover, how might your news organization facilitate dialogue about differences in your community?
- Younger generations were generally more confident than older generations in sorting news from opinion on digital-only news sites and social media (e.g. 52 percent of adults under 30 said it’s very or at least somewhat easy to make the distinction on social media, compared to just 34 percent of adults 60 and older). Yet younger generations also were less likely than older generations to say they could sort news from opinion in legacy media like TV and newspapers. Instead, the level of ease was about the same for younger adults across all media types. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say it’s easier to make these distinctions in nearly all media types we asked about. ↩
- Young people had less understanding of these terms than older adults, though older adults also had difficulty with some terms. For example, older adults are significantly more likely to report being very or completely familiar with the term “op‑ed,” but still only 36 percent of those 60 and up understand the term (compared to 21 percent of those under 30). Even newspapers subscribers had difficulty with the term “op-ed,” though not as much as non-subscribers. ↩
- A recent survey by the Knight Foundation and Gallup found most Americans agree that “most news media don’t do a good job of letting people know what is fact and what is opinion.” ↩
- Perhaps opinion does creep into news reports, or the confusion about what is news or opinion contributes to this perception. Factors we didn’t explore might contribute, too. For example, the Pew Research Center recently explored people’s ability to identify factual statements versus opinion statements, finding that people can’t always accurately make the distinction. ↩
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