Fake news. Those two words have likely created a lot of distrust of the news media in recent years. While it is easy to understand why those of us who work in the news media despise the term, it should also be apparent that the general public has a vested interest in discerning facts from falsehoods.
There is nothing wrong with the news media providing opinions, and it often plays an important role in explaining what the facts may mean. The problem comes when the audience doesn’t discern the difference between news and opinion.
Opinions on newspaper editorial pages have been in the news recently. So, this is a good time to look at why newspapers print editorials, and how readers should regard their worth, their impact and their relationship to how news is covered by newspapers.
Newspaper editorial and opinion pages have long engendered misunderstanding among readers, and much of the confusion is, frankly, the fault of newspapers ourselves.
Since we understand the very important distinctions between news and opinions, we too often fail to remind our audience of the firewall we’ve established between the reporting of our journalists and the opining of editorial writers. Additionally, we don’t always label the opinion pieces as clearly as is needed.
A quick couple of definitions: The most common meaning of an “editorial” is the unsigned opinion piece that represents the view of the newspaper itself.
An op-ed or column presents the individual view of an identified person who might or might not work for the newspaper.
Let’s focus on those unsigned editorials, and why they matter.
First, here’s what editorials don’t do: They do not affect in any manner the way newspaper reporters cover the news, whether the news is about the city council or the president of the United States.
Editorials are not marching orders for journalists. When journalists are educated and trained, one of the first tenets they learn is to state the facts and keep their opinions out of the story.
Here’s what editorials do, and what is often misunderstood: Yes, editorials represent the views of the newspaper, but those views are meant to clarify the issues of the day, and serve to give readers insights into those issues.
There are two needed components for readers to trust their news sources. Newspapers have a responsibility to label opinion pieces appropriately and to keep the news objective, but the reader also has the responsibility to take the time to understand the difference.
Until then, we will likely continue to hear cries of “fake news” when the reader doesn’t like what they read. And that’s when we all lose.
Dean Ridings is chief executive officer of America’s Newspapers.