Editorials, Opinion

The difference between news and opinion

Someone recently said to a member of the Editorial Board that all news is opinion because it’s someone’s perspective. While not exactly wrong, such a sentiment is overly simplistic. And the confusion likely results from the way cable news-entertainment channels and social media mix fact-based news and opinion-based commentary with little to no delineation between the two. 

It’s a known problem. Take this exchange between two cable news industry experts on The Problem with Jon Stewart:  

“Cable’s moved to opinion. What’s the difference between opinion and what’s the news? Local’s never gotten into that game,” said Sean McLaughlin, vice president of news at Scripps. 

Soledad O’Brien, who has anchored a variety of programs across multiple cable news stations, followed up: “Local news has to … cover the community. So they can’t just have two people screaming at each for four minutes and say, ‘Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. We appreciate your time.’ ”  

McLaughlin’s question — “What’s the difference between opinion and what’s the news?” — echoes one we’ve heard many times. 

It’s a valid question, but one that applies mainly to news-entertainment networks — those 24-hour “news” stations that have to fill 16 hours of content using 2-4 hours’ worth of factual events. The remaining time is largely filled with people talking about the news: commenting, sharing thoughts, getting testimony and opinions from experts in related fields, analyzing the events of the day and speculating on their potential impact (a model that social media takes even further.) And when a “news” channel spends most of its time giving perspectives instead of just stating what happened, it’s understandable why some people believe the there is no distinction between news and opinion. 

That’s where O’Brien’s point comes in: Local news isn’t 24-hour cable news. Local news stations have a few hours spread across the day to deliver the day’s or week’s events to viewers. Newspapers have one chance (maybe two) a day to update readers on what’s happening in the community, the region, the state and the country — even the world. Local news doesn’t have the space nor time to opine endlessly; there’s just enough time and space to give you the facts and some context. 

In newspapers, especially, there is a clear dividing line between news and opinion. The Dominion Post’s opinion section has a big header at the top of the page that clearly says “opinion.” Even when opinion-ish pieces wander into the news and sports sections as columns, they are delineated from the articles by differences in formatting. You’ll see a column signature (headshot) above it and a tagline at the end, both of which tell you whose thoughts and perspectives you’re reading. In other publications, you may see columns labeled as “perspective,” “analysis,” “commentary” or “opinion” to differentiate them from the news articles.  

Yes, there are editorial decisions that go into creating news articles and news programs. Could we give you a detailed play-by-play of a city council meeting with all the procedural formalities? We could, but then the important things would get lost in the minutia.  Could we publish, unedited and without summary, an official’s or expert’s testimony? We could, but all the jargon is likely to make it confusing. 

Instead, we start with the most important information — the hard facts at the center — and make decisions about what else should be included to give you the clearest picture of what happened. That may mean getting a statement from a medical or scientific expert to help put those facts in context. It may mean giving space to two opposing sides of an issue and how each perceives the situation. It may mean only using select quotes from an interview or not including the back-and-forth between members of a commission. 

Cable news has its place, though it could certainly do a better job distinguishing reporting the news from commenting on the news. But the bad habits of news-entertainment channels/programs and social media shouldn’t be extrapolated to all news media — especially not to local news. 

There is a difference between news and opinion. And if we’re giving our opinion on the news, we make sure to say so.