Post No.: 0231
Regarding newspapers or magazines, comparing the ‘proper news sections’ (the reporting of plain, verified and independently-gathered information with accountability to their sources) with the ‘opinion sections’ (such as columns and editorials) is like comparing wombats to jellyfish! Yet many news consumers don’t consciously discern a difference when they read the different sections of a newspaper or magazine. It’s all just ‘news’.
Note also that there’s a difference between opinions in journalism (journalists investigating, asking for and reporting on various other people’s opinions, interpretations and narratives of an event) and opinions as journalism (e.g. columns, editorials and op-eds, where the author voices his/her own opinions, interpretations and narratives of an event).
Sometimes we misattribute the source of a piece of information (‘source misattribution’) when we, for example, hear a particular journalist for a news organisation express an opinion. We tend to forget the true source of that piece of information and end up attributing it to the entire news organisation as a whole (i.e. rather than ‘he/she said x’, it becomes ‘the news said x’) thus that opinion can be erroneously perceived as more supported and credible than it really was (as if it was proper journalistic reporting). So we tend to remember the opinions or what was said but tend to forget where they exactly came from (‘source amnesia’).
A piece can be one-sided because it’s not actually an impartial report but an editorial, opinion-editorial (op-ed) or column piece. Factual reports are supposed to follow journalistic standards/codes of practice; albeit the major regulator in your country could be largely self-regulation, the codes could be voluntary and/or the body might be insufficiently independent, so please check (read Post No.: 0084 for a short discussion about press regulation versus press freedom). However, editorials, op-eds and columns aren’t intended to cover all perspectives, be fair or be backed-up by evidence – they are expressly only the opinions of the authors concerned. They don’t (merely) report what they find like in proper investigative journalism – they speak of their own authors’ minds and possibly own agendas (they can even sometimes be vitriolic and aggressively-toned personal attacks against someone or some organisation).
Many news consumers cannot identify what type of piece they’re looking at, partly because some opinion or advertisement pieces purposely try to masquerade as ‘proper journalistic pieces’, and this is highly problematic because many opinions or paid-for advertisement claims could’ve been believed as objective facts or independent testimonials, or possibly vice-versa.
So try to be alert and understand the important differences between proper journalistic reports and editorials (pieces written by the editor and may feature letters written to the editor by members of the public), op-eds (a piece or page opposite the editorial page devoted to personal comment, opinion and features), columns (pieces written by regular contributors/columnists who share their own personal opinions), advertorials (paid-for advertisements presented intentionally and surreptitiously in the style of an editorial or independent journalistic piece to try to fool the reader into thinking that it is impartially written but is actually there to promote the advertiser’s product and/or brand), native advertising (a subtler (and therefore arguably even more surreptitious) form of advertorial that’s still paid-for by an advertiser and intentionally resembles a publication’s editorial content but is more about expressing the advertiser’s brand as a thought leader or expert in its field than an in-your-face promotion of its products), and press releases (official statements issued to the press by e.g. a company or political party, typically via their own PR departments or other PR agencies).
It shouldn’t be surprising that companies will biasedly promote their own products (e.g. sister publications or other brands owned by the ultimate parent company of a publication) over their competitors’, or will biasedly promote a sponsor or paying-advertiser’s own products in a group test that’s set up so that a product of theirs will win. Many owners of media organisations/conglomerates are billionaires who also have fingers in other pies (political and corporate interests elsewhere that they want to serve), or they may be state-run – and they can set the agendas, manipulate the facts or present one-sided angles too. It’s therefore worth researching who owns and runs which media outlets in your country, and their connected interests and overall political leanings.
Regulations depend on the country and can be complex. In many places, paid-for adverts or sponsored content such as advertorials and sponsored social media posts should be declared as such, but they often aren’t or aren’t made unambiguously clear enough that they are so watch out for this (e.g. check out the small print, which is sometimes incredibly small!) The opinions of social media influencers are likely to be highly biased because of the fact they’re being paid to promote a particular product or a brand, yet the ‘#ad’ hashtag might be easily missed or dismissed. Other forms of promotion may or may not, currently, escape regulations that seek transparency that they’re paid-for endorsements, or escape other types of consumer protections such as when advertising gambling products to young children or gambling products online in general (e.g. video game loot boxes). Regulations are usually playing a catch-up game to new technologies and marketing techniques.
Commercial self-interests in an unregulated advertising market result in one-sided presentations. Something true but one-sided is like promoting a drink that’s high in vitamin C but neglecting to say that it’s also high in sugar, or mentioning one’s achievements on a job application but not mentioning one’s convicted frauds too. A company’s turnover means nothing without also accounting for its costs, and a fast car isn’t actually great if it breaks down every few miles. So the truth won’t do – we need the whole truth so that people can make properly informed decisions.
This doesn’t necessarily mean one should ignore all advertorials, native advertising or sponsored sources – just take them with a provisional grain of salt and understand the ‘paid-for’ conflict-of-interest situation (between serving outright honesty and appeasing their sponsors, clients or own business) that those articles, posts or videos were written or shot under. (For example, a credit company that wrote a piece about the harms of charitable donations to the poor may have created it because they’d prefer poor people to borrow their way out of poverty instead?) They can at least act as a springboard to look for further, more independent, more impartial, sources of research or reviews. So it’s not about not believing everything these articles say or believing everything they say – conflicts of interest don’t necessarily mean lies – you just need to be cautious and do further research from a variety of other independent sources. Try to look for the alternative answers or claims to what they say then put it all into a fair context. Have their claims backed or disputed by other sources if you can find them. (That includes scrutinising this and other blogs too, even though this blog has been so far written completely independently from sponsored interests or even paid-for adverts, and will remain so as long as it can be sustained. Woof!)
Opinions as journalism are not pure journalism because they don’t only intend to inform via reporting but intend to persuade. Reading them can help us to consider various different perspectives on an issue in order to help shape our own furry stances – but we must recognise that an opinion is just an opinion, and to do our own homework first otherwise we’re just blindly copying someone else’s opinions; no matter how famous, charming or vocally passionate they might be.
It’s probably best to familiarise yourself with news reports and the proven facts of an issue (proper journalism) first before consuming opinion journalism, or at least before settling on a firm opinion of your own. Check the facts they claim and be discerning, even when you’re inclined to agree with their opinion – we’re naturally less critical of anything we already agree with so we need to fight this natural tendency.
One should accept that different people can legitimately perceive the exact same events differently to oneself (this is related to the problem of ‘naïve realism’ in the context of psychology, which, metaphorically, is like when some people see a glass as half full and others see the exact same glass as half empty but everyone thinks they’ve got the objective view) hence one can sometimes learn some new things from the opinions of others. So be open-minded and see if you can find any counter-arguments to your own, as well as to their, current position(s). Purposely seek the hard facts and the evidence first, then seek alternative opinions and information sources, before forming your own (strong) interpretations of these facts and evidence. Make sure your opinions are grounded in those hard facts and evidence, and check to see if other people’s opinions are also grounded in them. Ensure that these facts also aren’t cherry-picked, exaggerated, over-extrapolated or taken out of context and so on, and beware of confirmation biases – it’s comforting if you agree with the opinions of another person but expose yourself and give fair attention to discomforting opinions too.
Be aware that unless you were there as a firsthand witness to an event then all verbal eyewitness information you’re receiving is at least second-hand – therefore always have an open-mind and be receptive to alternative views on such issues, even if we have a tendency to automatically trust in one side over another due to some kind of personal affiliation or interest (e.g. only trusting one’s own nation’s media sources over other international media sources); or keep your opinions soft rather than strong if you learn that an issue is actually more nuanced, complicated, controversial or unclear than at first seems.
A less stubborn or impatient mind will eventually discover the truths or best-supported stances because a more open and diligent mind continues to absorb information and learns rather than fixes upon a stance too soon. A wise animal also gathers the evidence before forming any conclusion, rather than holds an opinion first then looks for evidence to support this presumed conclusion.
Woof! Please use the Twitter comment button below to let us know if you think that opinion pieces, paid-for adverts and pieces that otherwise may have a conflict of interest against their impartiality are marked clearly enough in the media? (No part of this post has been paid-for and all views expressed are independently my own. Although my opinions are shared, that helps me to write pieces like this that critique the media and marketing industries themselves – I can freely bite the hand that doesn’t feed me!)