Fuzzy Logic: The Collapse of the News-Opinion Distinction
by Stephen J. A. Ward
October 3, 2006
After a century of service, the old warhorse of newsroom practice -- a strict distinction between news and opinion -- is so weakened by scepticism, and so useless in controversial cases, that it should be retired.
The recent controversy over Jan Wong’s Dawson College article and recent moves by The New York Times to distinguish news and opinion only confirm my view that this is a topic dominated by fuzzy logic.
Attempts to distinguish between reporting and non-reporting in terms of “just the facts” and “just your opinions” are greeted by a wall of scepticism. Many people refuse to believe that journalists can separate fact from value, fact from interpretation. This scepticism is supported by academic studies and by trends in news reporting. Much of journalism today straddles the boundary between “straight” and “unstraight” reporting.
I do not reject the distinction between news and opinion. I do not say the distinction is unimportant. I do say that the old way of understanding the distinction is exhausted. It fails to apply to new or hybrid forms of journalism. It fails to help us deal with controversial cases. It is time to re-think the entire concept.
Consider the Wong case. Her “Get Under the Desk” report in The Globe and Mail (September 16th, 2006) raised the possibility that the Montreal shootings were linked to alienation among non-francophone communities due to the “decades-long linguistic struggle.” On September 23, Edward Greenspon, Globe editor-in-chief, wrote: “In hindsight, the paragraphs (that linked the shooting to others in Montreal’s recent history) were clearly opinion and not reporting and should have been removed from that story. To the extent they may have been used, they should have been put into a separate piece clearly marked opinion. That particular passage of the story did not constitute a statement of fact, but rather a thesis -- and thus did not belong in the article.”
Did this appeal to reporting-versus-opinion settle the issue? Hardly. On the CAJ list-serve, journalists wondered if Wong, a well-known columnist, had written a news article. One journalist said the Dawson article contained Wong’s picture, like articles by other Globe columnists. Another journalist questioned a premise of the discussion: “I doubt it is possible to report a story without opinion. First one has to decide whether to write a story at all about an event -- a matter of opinion. . . . Then there is the decision on what to emphasize by putting it in the lead -- again, a matter of opinion.”
I note this debate not to take sides but to show how, in today’s journalism, the news-opinion distinction can produce as much disagreement as agreement.
The traditional news-opinion distinction also provides little help in evaluating the many forms of journalism that lie between straight reporting and commenting – the analysis, the backgrounder, the first-person news account, the investigative inquiry. For example, take those “special reports” in weekend newspapers. On September 30, the front page of The Vancouver Sun featured a large photo of criminal eyes. The headline blared: “Stolen Goods.” Readers were directed inside to two pages of articles by reporter Chad Skelton on the high rate of property crime in Vancouver. The pages contained different forms of journalism with different purposes: statistics on crime and court sentencing; a featurish report on police interviewing repeat offenders; tips on how to protect your home from robbery, and so on. It was part feature, part straight reporting, part consumer report. It contained not just facts but perspectives and values. The old news-opinion distinction has little application to this form of journalism.
Take, as another example, Michael Valpy’s analysis of Belinda Stronach and her alleged affair with Tie Domi. In the Focus section of the Globe and Mail on September 30, 2006, Valpy began with this: “Belinda Stronach, multimillionaire divorcee and recent minister of the Crown, likes sex. She likes athletes’ good hard bodies. Acquaintances say she’s partial to younger men. And, being a dude magnet, she appears able to come-hither any hunk who catches her eye.”
Sheer naked opinion, right? Wrong. In the rest of his article, Valpy provided an interesting analysis that used many of objective journalism’s methods – an appeal to facts, to biographical documents, to relevant sources and interviews. He didn’t just express opinion. He grounded in fact his interpretation that there is more to Stronach than meets the eye. What does the news-opinion distinction say about this form of journalism? Not much.
One response to the blurring of the news-opinion distinction is to alert readers to stories with significant amounts of interpretation. The New York Times established a “News/Opinion Divide Committee” of nine editors to not only separate news and opinion, but to recommend better ways to identify the many types of analytical articles that fall between straight news and opinion columns. One result is that on September 20, articles that are not “straight news” will appear with a ragged right-hand margin – a convention already used for columns. I applaud the paper’s efforts to clearly label stories. But it also shows how complex the categorizing of articles has become.
How might we re-think the news-opinion dichotomy? In The Invention of Journalism Ethics, I offered a book-length theory of news objectivity for today’s more interpretive journalism. I can’t repeat my theory here, but I can boil it down to a few fundamentals.
1. Stop thinking of the objective reporter as a passive stenographer of facts. Start thinking of all journalists as active, value-guided inquirers who interpret and investigate their world.
2. Stop thinking that a report is objective if it contains only facts. Similarly, stop thinking that any report that contains opinion or interpretation is therefore incurably biased. Start thinking of good journalism as informed interpretations – informed by multiple perspectives and tested by objective standards of fact, logic and knowledge.
3. Stop thinking that objectivity applies only to straight reports. Objectivity, as a set of standards, can be used to evaluate analysis or features.
4. Stop dividing journalism into two camps -- reports and opinion. Start thinking about journalism as a continuum of forms of communication that contain varying degrees of interpretation for different purposes.
5. Stop thinking that, if journalists choose their facts and sources, then they cannot be objective. All inquirers, including scientists, select and choose. Start thinking of objectivity as standards to test the selection process.
6. Whether or not my theory works, it is time for journalism to move on beyond a simplistic news-opinion dichotomy, with its reliance on a narrow idea of objectivity.
It is time to give the old warhorse a decent burial.
STEPHEN WARD, Editor,
Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen. Dr Ward is also Acting Director, UBC School of Journalism; Associate Professor of Journalism Ethics, UBC School of Journalism; Principal Investigator, GE3LS Research into Science Journalism, UBC, Pleiades Promoter Project, Center for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics, Vancouver, British Columbia