One of the biggest stories in the world of American media in recent years has been the stunning decline of trust that Americans express in (wait for it) the mainstream American news media. There is some substance behind all the "fake news" screams.
The headline grabber, of course, was the Gallup Poll in September, 2016 that indicated public "trust and confidence" in journalists to "report the news fully, accurately and fairly" had fallen to its lowest level in the history of polling by that brand-name institution. Go ahead, click here and look those numbers over.
What, you ask, does this have to do with religion news coverage? If you have read GetReligion over the years, you know that issues linked to religion, morality and culture have been at the heart of many, if not most, debates about media bias and warped news coverage.
However, there is clearly another factor at play here -- one linked to the technology that journalists are using to deliver the news and how it shapes the "news" (intentional scare quotes) people are consuming.
To get to the point: When I talk to people who are mad at mainstream journalists, I usually discover that these citizens confuse opinion pieces and news reports. They don't know, to be specific, the difference between a news story and an op-ed piece, or between talking-head opinion shows and programs that are, to some degree, trying to do straightforward, hard news. They see no difference between a "Christmas Wars" feature on a talk show and a mainstream newsroom report about a holiday church-state case.
Stop and think about this from a graphics and design perspective. When you encounter a story on Twitter or, as millions of heartland Americans do, on Facebook, how would you know that it is a "news" piece, as opposed to a work of analysis or opinion?
This brings me to a must-read NiemanLab.org essay by digital journalist Rachel Schallom, which ran with this headline: "Better design helps differentiate opinion and news."
You can see several big ideas in her overture:
No marketing slogan will make readers believe that journalism is unbiased, accurate, and real until we get serious about helping them navigate our different types of coverage. ...
Before the internet, the opinion section was just that: its own section. We used changes in print design to signal to readers that this content was different: ragged-right alignment, italicized headlines, columnist headshots. These standards were okay because they were in the context of being on a separate page clearly labeled as opinion.
Most readers today find our stories by directly visiting article pages, not by navigating to a specific section front. They see articles posted on social media or shared by friends via email or messaging apps. It needs to be immediately obvious to the reader whether that content is news or opinion, and that’s something the industry is sorely failing at.
Alas, there are news organizations that fail to label news and opinion pieces in any way. Others may tip readers off -- at the end of an article. How many readers, these days, have the patience to pay attention to the fine details at the end of what, to them, is a "news story" from an elite news organization?
Now, make sense of all of that on your smartphone while being blasted by pop-up ads and countless appeals from the newsroom (or whoever) asking permission for their computers to send you "news alerts" every few minutes. Many of these "news alerts" will, of course, take you to clickbait opinion pieces intended to fuel passions among core readers.
... Too often, the standard solution is to throw a label on the top of the story and feel good that we’ve done our part. The implication is that if the reader misunderstands, it’s their fault. Our readers aren’t stupid and deserve far more respect than we’ve been giving them.
Labels aren’t helpful when we have a slew of terms we use whose meanings are misunderstood frequently: columns, analysis, editorial, opinion, commentary, essay, viewpoint, perspective. These terms represent less of a black-and-white situation and more of a spectrum of reported news to first-person opinion. It’s no wonder readers are commonly confused and aren’t sure if they can trust what they read.
This is a design challenge.
What to do? How to help readers know the difference between, well, news reporting, blogging or what some called "reported" blogging? Heaven help us.
Schallom has some ideas on how to get this discussion started.
So read it all. And let us know what you think in the comments section.