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Commentary vs Reporting

by Shari Graydon

Recently the public editor of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane wrote about the complaints he gets from readers concerned about the blurring line between opinion and reporting. I share the view that publications should clearly differentiate between content that is intended to neutrally report on events, and articles that reflect the opinions (hopefully, informed opinions) of their authors.

A dozen years ago, teaching a third year communications course at SFU in critical media skills, I remember being surprised to discover that many of the mid-career teachers in my class – were not familiar with this distinction. They often didn’t notice bylines; didn’t realize that photographs of the journalist generally signified columnist status and permission to opine; didn’t know that the slug at the bottom of some articles describing affiliation or expertise meant the writer was a guest; and were unaware that the page opposite the editorials (hence the term “op ed”) were usually devoted to commentary and analysis, as opposed to straight reporting.

Unless you study journalism, these things aren’t typically covered in school. Although they can be gleaned through careful reading, they’re not necessarily obvious to the casual news consumer. But the distinction between “just the facts” and opinion is important, as is some transparency about where the authority of each commentator comes from: has she just written a book on the subject? does he teach at a reputable institution? did she spend 5 years working in the field or country about which she’s writing?

It’s all important context – media literacy for adults…