News media needs to differentiate between fact & opinion

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In a time of distrust between news outlets and their readers, newspapers have a responsibility to clearly label their content as either fact or opinion. 

The Toronto Star recently published a column about Jeopardy!, painting Alex Trebek as disliking a contestant. The column was the subject of criticism — some from Trebek himself — because it didn’t clarify the statements in it were based on personal opinion rather than fact. In the aftermath, The Star’s public editor published a follow-up article discussing the need to differentiate stories as opinion and fact to help clarify for readers. 

In this situation, the title of the piece caused the most trouble because it didn’t communicate that it was an opinion story right off the bat. Since the average reader doesn’t finish or even fully read articles before sharing, commenting or believing them, the headline can be one of the most important communicative devices a news organization has. 

When news outlets fail to look at things from the perspective of someone outside of their industry, they can often get stuck in a feedback loop. What might look good for those inside the paper might not communicate it well enough for everyone else.

Publications can’t assume everyone has the capacity or time to learn and differentiate between fact and opinion when looking for information. With the average reader spending little time on an article, it’s the responsibility of the media to spell out that difference for their readers in every way they can, including their titles. 

There will always be readers who won’t take basic cues or even finish articles before making up their minds about them. You can’t force anyone to be informed, but you can make it harder for them to misinterpret information.

Clearly labelling opinion pieces like columns and editorials on their website and in print is the easiest way for news organizations to improve their accessibility for readers. Another is to provide an FAQ page to explain news media terms to those who are unfamiliar. Finally, having a public editor in place can help bridge the wide gap between writer and reader.  

To help create a more informed readership, news outlets need to be doing everything they can. Reading between the lines shouldn’t be solely the reader’s responsibility when it comes to newspapers.

 

— Journal Editorial Board

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