Editor’s note: This column is part of a seven-day Forum Communications series on the First Amendment. If you have a question or comment, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Of the following three hypothetical stories, which is the opinion piece?
- A: One that announces a local school board decision to raise taxes for a new school and includes comments from sources who believe the new school is the best option.
- B: One that outlines the goals of a political party during the next election cycle.
- C: One that critiques a city official and suggests changes to improve local government.
Answer: “C,” although many people nowadays feel “B” is opinion, too. A few might even say “A.”
That uncertainty is proving to be a conundrum for newspaper managers, journalists and readers alike.
Commentary and analysis have boomed in the age of the internet. What used to be relegated to a single page in a newspaper — perhaps two pages on a Sunday — now is available ad infinitum on the web.
And as a certain crass saying about opinions goes: Everybody’s got one. Thanks to the internet, most everybody also has a virtual printing press or broadcast station to distribute it unfiltered to the masses.
As Forum Communications Co. continues its weeklong project on news literacy and the First Amendment, managers and content producers in the company have realized the difference between news and opinion — or at least the foggy haze that sometimes envelopes the two — must be addressed.
It seems that too often, readers mistake news as opinion. In some cases, readers believe a newspaper’s simple decision to pursue and publish certain stories is opinion disguised as news. And to be honest, perhaps the media’s sometimes casual packaging of opinion content could be adding to a growing distrust in news.
To address this, a team of people from throughout Forum Communications convened earlier this year to discuss ways we can alleviate concerns we have heard from our own readers.
With that in mind, a few crib notes about news and opinion content.
News stories include the byline of the reporter and, ideally, outline the basic facts of a story. In journalism classes, young reporters are taught to provide the who, what, when, where, why and how of an event or issue. Our company’s news stories are verified by sources, by data or by both.
News stories about a fire, for instance, may not include quotes or comments from a source. Stories that outline issues generally include comments from both sides.
News stories can be found scattered throughout a newspaper or website, often categorized by sections – “Life” or “Region,” for instance.
These are unsigned pieces that reside on a newspaper’s editorial or opinion page; they’re unsigned because editorials traditionally represent thoughts or work by multiple authors or are written on behalf of the publisher, a newspaper’s top executive. Often, they are attributed to an editorial board, generally a group that helps determine a newspaper’s editorial stances or gathers to discuss issues with sources.
These are usually personal in nature and represent that particular author’s insight. Columns run a gamut of styles and genres, ranging from politics to food, or simply life in general. At most newspapers, they are distinguishable by the inclusion of the author’s photo. Columnists may not always be full-time employees of a newspaper but they usually are regular, paid contributors and hired based on their background or expertise in a subject. Columnists are expected to be interesting, sometimes provocative, sometimes thoughtful and sometimes humorous.
Often, columns are published on the opinion pages, but some are printed on pages that match their particular genre, such as sports or lifestyle pages. And while a columnist may not necessarily be an opinion columnist, they do at times offer their personal thoughts.
Similar to columns, op-eds almost always are submitted by unpaid contributors who do not have any connection to the newspaper. Opinion editors often are finicky about accepting op-eds, following criteria based on an author’s expertise.
Op-eds go by many names. At the Grand Forks Herald, they’re known as “Viewpoints” and at the Duluth News Tribune, they’re known as “Local Views.” At The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, they have no special name. They universally are published on opinion pages.
Letters to the editor
These are shorter pieces, also from unpaid contributors, that don’t require any particular expertise, but rather allow news consumers to voice their thoughts on the news of the day.
Forum Communications Co. is dedicated to using its resources to not only cover the news, but also to offer insightful commentary that promotes dialogue to better educate our readers on important issues. The best way to do that is through robust opinion pages, replete with editorials, columns, op-eds and letters to the editor.
Meanwhile, helping our customers understand why we do it — all while redoubling our efforts to differentiate news and opinion — remains ever important.
Korrie Wenzel is publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.