What do you get when you cross opinion with news?

Nathan Smith
Insights Newsletter
14 February, 2020

Journalism and opinion are supposed to be clearly separated, but that difference is shrinking – and perhaps disappearing. 

Objective reporting is like utopia, it cannot really exist. A journalist does not know all the right questions to ask, cannot step fully outside their worldview, cuts and slices an interview to better fit the narrative and will never talk to every side of the story (there are always more than two sides). 

So, in a way, labelling one set of articles “opinion” and others “reporting” helps a newspaper sell the central message: that its news is as close to the truth as possible. If opinion pieces are removed, it would not take long for readers to wonder why the news sounds suspiciously subjective.

Newspapers created a dedicated opinion section to reinforce this illusion. When a reader flips to this commentary, they subtly accept that the news section must have been objective. This is a neat cognitive trick of comparison: since there are two types, they cannot both be the same. 

Maybe this structure could have survived into the 21st century, but the internet changed everything. Today, media companies do not compete against other media directly – they are now in the time business. News is an information technology – always has been – and its competitors are all the other information activities people might choose to pursue.

Transitioning online made sense for newspapers because the internet is the perfect tool for delivering information. It removes much of the friction and entry costs of printing, postal services, fixed deadlines and the rest. Yet it was precisely this friction that gave media a market advantage by making it difficult for normal people to join in the fun. 

Today, everyone has a social network account through which they read about events in real-time. No middleman required. Legacy media has struggled to stay alive and relevant. 

While everyone is entitled to their digital opinion, not all opinions are equal. And since everyone can have an opinion, everything begins to look like an opinion – including news. But it is worse than that. The noise of the online space means journalists are shouting louder to get their signal to the public. 

The result is an erosion of the illusion that separates opinion from news, and the very group of people who are supposed to be responsible for at least trying to be objective (even if they can’t ever fully achieve it) have found themselves operating in a completely new world with entirely different economic incentives. 

It is hard to know if these fresh incentives attract a certain kind of journalist more suited to writing opinionated stories (to get the eyeballs), or if journalists are reacting to the pressure by imitating everyone else. Whatever the case, the illusion of objective news is critical for media to maintain. 

If it is lost, the existential vacuum would make for a terrifying wooshing sound.

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