Lines between opinion, analysis and news need to be clearer

By Sylvia Stead

Globe and Mail

Globe readers had reason to be confused this week. A few were puzzled by two instances of columnists who were writing either opinion, analysis or politics. So now you are probably confused too.

A little background: Campbell Clark is The Globe and Mail’s chief political writer. He writes several times a week, mostly opinion, but sometimes if it runs on the front page it’s labelled analysis. John Ibbitson is a writer in the Ottawa bureau who regularly writes columns or analysis and occasionally news stories. Adam Radwanski is a political feature writer who mostly writes analysis.

This week in the paper, all three have written pieces that were placed on the news pages, presented with what we call “head furniture,” which is a photo, their e-mail under the photo and a feature/column layout. In small type over those columns were the words “opinion” or “analysis.” On digital and mobile, it was even less clear. Two of the three included the label “analysis” on digital – the two that were labelled that way in the paper. The one labelled “opinion” didn’t carry that label online. Then all three on mobile were just labelled as “politics,” the same as any political news story.

Even sophisticated readers are not clear about what these labels and head furniture mean. One said on Twitter that since a Campbell Clark opinion column was labelled opinion, why was it on a page that says news?

Another complained about the piece by Adam Radwanski, about some of the language he used and the reporting backup for that language. “Where is the analysis which this column purports to be?” she asked.

The problem is not on the opinion pages, where it is clear these are personal views. The confusion comes on news pages when analysis and opinion are given similar treatment apart from the reference to opinion or analysis at the top of the article. And in my view, some of the analyses that run on the news pages tend to be more of a news feature than an analysis, but that is a minor issue.

There is no question there is a grey area between a news feature such as a beat reporter using context, and an analysis that seeks to delve more deeply into the why. Most news articles and features will include some analysis or observation. Analysis is trying to explain the context and why something is happening using background knowledge and expertise. It should not include a personal opinion.

Opinions should be much clearer. An opinion columnist gives her or his personal opinion. They may take you through the background and news on how they arrived at that opinion, but it is often not objective and can be very one-sided, even provocative at times. It can be like a debate when someone takes one side of an argument. And you the reader are entitled to see that it is someone’s personal opinion and make up your own mind.

The Globe’s deputy editor Sinclair Stewart agreed that there is a problem. “We need to be much clearer in how we distinguish opinion pieces from other forms of journalism, like reported analysis. We plan to change our labelling conventions to ensure that we’re being consistent across all of our platforms.”

It matters whether an article is clearly labelled as an opinion. Readers need to know if they are reading an experienced journalist giving them context and background knowledge, or are they also reading someone’s personal opinion?

It’s a big difference that should be crystal-clear on all platforms.

This column was originally published in the Globe and Mail on 15 March 2017.

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