Do journalists (and the public, for that matter) still separate news and opinion?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, we know that it is now August. However, there is no Aug. 1 in the calendar of the SquareSpace software we use to publish this blog. Think "Twilight Zone."


Pick a poll, pretty much any poll, and you will see that public trust for the work of journalists today is lower than low.

OK, how about Gallup in 2014, a poll indicating the key trust number -- for newspapers -- was at 22 percent and dropping below previous records? You don't want to know what the numbers were for television news and the Internet.

Of course, there is a degree of public hypocrisy in those numbers. Postmodern Americans claim they want balanced, accurate news and then there is strong evidence that what they really want is opinion and news that backs their own views. It is rare to see a deep, balanced, nuanced news story trending on Twitter.

So should journalists stop trying? Should mainstream news outlets simply let their freak flags fly and stop trying to do fair and accurate coverage of causes they believe are, using this phrase in as nonsectarian a way as possible, of the Devil? Using terms from journalism history, should journalists give up on the American model of the press and go back to a European, advocacy model?

That was the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast chat with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in), spinning off my recent GetReligion post about a New York Times article in which gay-rights activists reached out, through a formal letter, to Pope Francis seeking a face-to-face media event during his upcoming visit to the media centers of the American Northeast. As always in the Kellerism age, there was zero evidence that the world's most powerful newspaper made any attempt to seek the input of pro-Catechism Catholics when reporting this story, even when discussing events and doctrines on which there are myriad points of view to consider.

I noted, in that post, that there was a time when journalists worked hard to let readers know that they attempted to talk to people on both sides of critical debates in public life. Of course, there are people who refuse to talk to the media and the public needs to know that. Thus:

When dealing with a Catholic controversy, for example, journalists would write a sentence that went something like this: "A spokesperson for the archbishop said he could not comment at this time." Or perhaps this: "The (insert newspaper name here) made repeated attempts to contact the leaders of (insert name of activist organization here) but they declined to comment at this time."

Clearly, the goal was to show readers that this news source deserved their trust.

So, what does it mean when a news organization keeps cranking out reports in which only one side of a hot-button debate is quoted? The result resembles a press-release for a pet cause, one in which the talking points of one camp are repeated with zero challenge while shareholders (this crucial journalism term is defined here) and experts on the other side are put on mute or, at the most, represented with one dry quote copied from a website.

I suggested that, for Times coverage of moral and religious issues, we may have reached the point where editors need to insert the following language into stories:

 "It is the policy of the Times not to offer Catholic leaders and experts a chance to defend the teachings of their church, since those teachings clash with the views of this newspaper and, thus, are wrong."

Once again, it is important to recognize that many, many Americans may have given up on journalism altogether -- which is tragic in a republic in which Freedom of the Press is a crucial element of public discourse. Other Americans have functionally written off real news and are consuming large amounts of straight opinion. Many others simply no longer know the difference between news and opinion.

On that subject, GetReligion readers may want to read the following Religion News Service "Faith & Culture" column by Jonathan Merritt that opens with the following ultra-pushy prose:

Nothing says, “I have no idea what I’m talking about” like a pastor, blogger, or social media troll complaining about “journalistic integrity.” Those who use this phrase are typically not saying anything about journalism; they just don’t like what the writer has to say. How do I know this? Because I’ve met more than my share of them and, when pressed, they cannot even define the word “journalism.”
Upon receiving this criticism, I usually respond with twin questions:
How do you define “journalism?”
What are the standards of “journalism” that you think are required for it to have integrity?
With rare exception, the critic has no answer -- not even a bad one -- to either question. Instead of doing the hard work of defining terms they seek to use, the individual has mindlessly commandeered a phrase that they’ve heard someone somewhere (probably on a cable news network) use and invoked it to hopefully cast doubt on the writer’s credibility.
A person shouldn’t use words they don’t understand.

Yes, the tone of this piece will turn off many readers who are not already on Merritt's side of things. Naturally.

However, at this point he leaps into a crucial discussion and, with it, I will end this post. This is crucial material to the discussion in this week's podcast:

One of the most helpful things to remember is that journalism is not monolithic. Most people conflate “journalism” with “reporting.” This is a grave mistake because though reporting is journalism, journalism is more than reporting. Most journalists generally fall into one of two broad categories: reporters and commentators. That’s why if you pick up a newspaper -- as fewer and fewer people are doing -- it will essentially be split into a “news” section(s) and an “opinion” section. These sections are run under two different desks with two separate sets of standards. What is happening in these sections are not the same because reporting is not commentary and vice versa.
In news writing, where information is reported, for example, there should be a balance of perspectives offered by sources other than the writer. Typically, at least three sources representing a range of perspectives on the topic are quoted. The author’s bias should be minimized as much as possible (I don’t believe bias can ever be completely eliminated). They should cover news, in the words of Adolph Ochs, “without fear or favor.”
In opinion writing, the writer is commenting on news, rather than reporting on it. The opinion writer is paid to have an opinion and maintains no illusion of being unbiased. Therefore, the best opinion writing should assert a strong point of view. And a commentator is not obligated to interview sources -- though often he or she can if they deem it to be helpful -- because the writer is merely offering an opinion on what is already known.
For reporters to maintain journalistic integrity, they should produce work that is honest, accurate, fair, and as balanced as is possible. For commentators to maintain journalistic integrity, they should produce work that is honest, accurate, and appropriately pointed. Opinion writers are not required to present an opposing view to their own unless they deem it helpful to them to their readers. A reporter’s article should provide an accurate snapshot of what is happening in the world while a commentator’s article should tell you what he or she thinks you should make of that snapshot.

Ah. But what happens in the WWW age, with reporters doing "reporting" in one place and then turning around and spouting opinion in another -- even for the same news organization, on the same website, with the same framing graphics?

Merritt knows that is happening, of course. After all, he is part of that scene:

But the crucial question from the podcast remains: What do we call "news" that is just as unbalanced as the "columnist" material? What do we call "news" when it is being produced by newsrooms that no longer believe that shareholders on both sides of crucial debates deserve fairness, respect and even accuracy? Think "Twilight Zone," again.

Enjoy the podcast.

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