The vast need for clarity in news - Denny Scott editorial
If you look to the top of the two pages you’re looking at right now (or, if you’re viewing this online, the header you found it under) you’ll notice you’re reading The Citizen’s opinion and editorial section, meaning this isn’t the same kind of hard and tested news we publish in the rest of the newspaper (and on the rest of our website).
It’s important that readers know the difference between something that is our opinion, and something that either is fact or was presented as such to local governments.
Why? Well because, aside from these pages (and online sections), Shawn, Deb and I feel it’s important that there is no bias or opinion in the news.
Just over 10 years ago I found myself rudderless (if only for a couple days) when my first job at a local newspaper came to an end. I was working for The Signal-Star at the time (obligatory explanation that, at that time, there was a hyphen, even if they’ve dropped it now) and I was fortunate to have a publisher who shielded us from having to follow a particular political leaning from the parent company that owned the paper. However, most major news organizations have a lean to them and that political bias can spread throughout the newspapers those organizations own.
I’ve always felt, since I started here 10 years ago as of February (you remember February, before the earth was declared closed for business?) lucky because, before I showed up here, I didn’t know what The Citizen was all about.
I won’t say that locally-owned newspapers are like unicorns (so rare they must be mythical), because since I started here smaller organizations have actually bought out other nearby papers, making for a better chance of quality local coverage. I will say, however, that on average, the kind of newspaper that The Citizen is doesn’t seem to be replicated often.
So while it’s great that I’m able to work here, where we avoid political (and other) bias in our news stories and clearly label our news stories (and vice versa), that isn’t always the case, especially on the internet.
Most of our readers in Brussels likely know about the less-than-flattering piece that was written about the community by a contributor to the Globe and Mail’s website recently and while I share the outrage at the “fly-by” research that was done (or not done, depending on how little effort you think the author put into the piece), I was also outraged that, nowhere, was it clearly stated that this was an opinion piece before you got into the meat of the story.
What’s the difference between a news piece and an opinion piece? Well, the differences are numerous, but the major departures are that news pieces are (or should be) vetted somehow, present the facts without bias and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about the issue. Opinion pieces are designed to make people see things the way the writer does, for better or for worse. For example, right now, I’m trying to impress on everyone the importance of noticing the difference between the two.
So nowhere in the aforementioned piece does it say, “This isn’t the opinion of the Globe and Mail, but of this author” or
have a big, bold heading that says “Opinion” or “Editorial”. Many news outlets are guilty of this on both sides of the political spectrum, but other actors, like Google, also fail to recognize the importance of dividing opinion from fact.
For example, last week I was researching topics for the editorial page, just to the left of this column in The Citizen’s print version. When I sought stories about the throne speech and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s address to Canada, the second news hit returned was an opinion piece from Global News. Now, to Global’s credit, it clearly stated the article was “Commentary” and not news, but I think “Opinion” is still a far clearer title to establish the difference.
So while Global was honest about the nature of the article, that might not stop someone from finding it when they were looking for a news story about the speeches. That could either lead to a cognitive shutdown if it flies in the face of the reader’s belief or an echo chamber of approval while the actual content of the speeches remain buried under opinionated search results.
So what’s the point? Well, like I said above, I’m trying to impress upon everyone the importance of media literacy: knowing the difference between opinion and fact.
If I call out a council member, for example, about their attitude, that’s an opinion piece, but if I write a story, presenting all the facts without bias, and you decide that the councillor should be called out, that’s news and you are drawing your own opinion from it.
In the same way, if the Globe and Mail piece slighting the village of Brussels included sufficient research, that would be one thing, but with an unattributed “interview” with a single person on main street to back up the author’s bias, that is something else entirely.
Recognize the difference between a fact and an opinion.