- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
Distinguishing Opinion From News
By Ashley Smart / 3 minute read
To most journalists, the difference between fact and opinion is clear: Facts are statements that can be objectively verified or falsified; opinions are in the eye of the beholder. But the general public can sometimes confuse these distinctions. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that most U.S. adults, given a list containing 10 statements of either fact or opinion, could not correctly categorize them all. Equally worrisome for journalists, many readers also struggle to distinguish opinion from news. Around a quarter of readers say they are only a little familiar, or not familiar at all, with the difference between an editorial essay and a news story, according to a 2018 survey by the American Press Institute.
Journalists have a responsibility to help readers distinguish between opinion and news coverage, and many news organizations have begun to deploy new tactics aimed at making those distinctions clear. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, tweaks the layout and headline fonts for its opinion articles, and it places an opinion label in the digital masthead and above the header of its opinion essays. Many publications clearly label opinion stories, both on their websites and on social media, though a 2017 study by the Duke Reporters’ Lab found that the practice, at that time, was still sporadic.
In any case, clearly labeling opinion stories, and giving them a distinguishing layout, is good practice. But we can go further; editors can take a variety of steps to help steer readers clear of confusion.
The headline, for instance, is an important place to practice truth in advertising. In 2022, we at Undark ran an opinion essay about a proposal for a new federal agency — the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health — that President Biden pledged would help “end cancer as we know it.” One can imagine a headline that would read:
Biden Proposes Ambitious Plan to ‘End Cancer’
But to my eyes, that headline smacks of news. It signals to the reader that the health initiative itself is the story, and it suggests that the writer is more or less neutral about that initiative. In actuality, however, the writer took a pessimistic view of Biden’s plan, and argued that the proposal would repeat mistakes of history. In that light, one might consider a headline like this:
Biden’s Plan to ‘End Cancer’ Borrows From an Old Playbook
That would be an improvement — it more strongly hints that the writer will not only tell the reader about the health initiative but also offer an analysis of some sort.
But we can do one better:
Biden’s Plan to ‘End Cancer’ Borrows From an Old, Flawed Playbook
That headline makes no bones about the opinionated nature of the story to come; it alerts the reader that the writer will be offering not only analysis but judgment, too. Slap an “Opinion” label in front, and you’ll have exactly the headline that we used in the published version of the piece.
There are ways to signal in the body of an essay, too, that a piece is opinion and not news:
- Establish the first-person voice, use it liberally, and aim for it to be the last voice the reader hears in the story.
- Use direct quotes of other sources sparingly, and only when they bring something to the story that writers cannot provide in their own voice.
- Make sure writers spell out the thesis of the argument clearly — and preferably early — in the piece.
At the same time, opinion and news coverage can — and should — have certain things in common. Opinion writers should research, report, and ground their writing solidly in facts, just as they would for any other work of journalism. Then, by carefully managing an essay’s tone, the writer can signal to the reader that the storytelling is tinged with one person’s point of view. The line between opinion and news will be clear.
A Vast Potential
The opinion section has, in some quarters, earned an unflattering reputation as a place where anything goes — as a place where sensationalist arguments run wild and journalistic standards are sacrificed. And, yes, it can be that — but only if you let it.
As I’ve shown, good opinion writing can be much more. It can alert readers to problems they may not have even been aware of. It can help them see familiar problems in a new way. It can show readers, in tangible, empathetic ways, why the news should matter to them. And it can be a vital way to bring voices of all backgrounds into a shared public discourse. Done well, opinion essays are conversation starters, and that’s something that no healthy society can live without.