There are plenty of ways media companies can improve their credibility, making sure that the archers aren't coming along with the messenger seems like pretty low-hanging fruit.
The phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger” reminds us that the bearer of bad news is not necessarily the cause of that bad news, and we should not take out our anger on someone who is merely passing along information that originated from someone else. What the adage doesn’t address, however, is how we should react if the messenger brings along a posse of archers who are shooting arrows at us while he delivers the message.
Despite their best efforts to be objective, news organizations are suffering from ever-sinking credibility. Part of it is due to mistakes they make. (Yes, news organizations are comprised of a variety of mere mortals who, like the rest of the general population, are not infallible). Part of it is due to the current administration in Washington. But let’s face it, trust in the media has been falling since long before President Donald Trump and his minions began shouting “fake news” at every story they disagreed with. And increasingly, I think, a large part of it has to do with the fact that average readers can’t distinguish between what is supposed to be an objective news story and what is an opinion piece. And it isn’t the readers’ or viewers’ fault.
A July study by the Pew Research Center revealed only 22 percent of the respondents said they had “a lot” of trust in local news organizations. Although an additional 60 percent said they “somewhat” trusted their local news. So there is room to get a lot of those “somewhat” people back into the “a lot” column if we make some changes.
The biggest change should be to jettison all the opinion writers. Yes, yes, I know, there’s a certain irony to writing an opinion column about the need to do away with opinion columnists, but it really doesn’t have to be that drastic. Moving them a bit further from the news may be helpful, or creating their own niche and identity that is separate and apart from news operations.
Newsrooms have traditionally worked to separate the news and opinion sections. Opinion sections of print papers have traditionally been well-labeled. Typically the columns and editorials would be in a different type font or size, with the authors of opinion pieces prominently featured.
But increasingly people get their news from online sources. And the separation of news and opinion is less discernable online.
Many news websites these days place opinion columns next to news stories of the same topic. The headlines for an opinion column and a news story might be right next to each other, stacked on top of each other, or referred to in live links embedded in the stories.
Clicking on the opinion column most often reveals a tag that indicates it is an opinion piece, but experience tells me that most people do not make the distinction.
Even the news websites that do not mix the news and opinion pieces together on their homepage have little separation. Most often, simply scrolling down the page brings you to the opinions.
The problem is far worse on television, especially the 24/7 news channels that fill a lot of their hours with people spouting their opinions on issues. And when you consider that social media platforms often rely on links that take people directly to opinion sections, and those opinion sections have the name of the news organization at the top or in the web url, then it is little wonder that most people immediately associate the writer with the publication and assume a certain bias.
The line between news and opinion has always needed care and attention to ensure it was not only visible, but strong. Far too often these days, however, readers do not see that line, and news organizations are doing far too little to point it out.
This opens the door to confusion, either unintentional or intentional, as in the case where some unscrupulous organizations attempt to discredit the news by pointing to a publication’s opinion writers expressing opinions as evidence of bias in news.
That’s where the archers in the don’t shoot the messenger adage come in.
News organizations can legitimately say that they are not creating the news, but merely reporting about things that are happening. But when they circle their news stories with opinion columnists, they are in effect bringing along the archers to shoot at the very people the messenger is trying to address.
News websites would better serve their readers if they created an entirely new identity for their opinion section, just as they did centuries ago for their print editions, to help readers discern between news and opinion. They could still link to and promote those opinions from news stories, but there should be a standard format (“Click here to read about how our opinion columnists are weighing in on this issue”).
On television, perhaps grouping the opinion shows in blocks and advertising them as such would help. They could always use that scrolling text feature at the bottom of the screen to note that “The opinions expressed by (Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Whoever) are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of this news station.”
With a little thought, I’m sure they could come up with something.
Even if they did do these things, there would be people who still would not understand the difference between a news story, an opinion piece and an editorial. For the record, a news story should contain multiple sources that highlight a range of ideas with any given issue that it covers; an opinion piece is one writer’s thoughts on an issue; and an editorial is the opinion of the publication or the people who run the publication.
So, if the story is about whether school students should have recess, the news story will talk to people who think recess is good, and others who think the students’ time would be better spent studying inside; my opinion column would express my personal views on how recess should be expanded to take up the entire day; and the publication’s editorial will probably say recess is good but we should consider all the facts before attempting to make a decision one way or the other.
There are plenty of ways media companies can improve their credibility, making sure that the archers aren’t coming along with the messenger seems like pretty low-hanging fruit.
Jim Lee is Editor for Gatehouse Media Delaware. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.