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Media around the world are debating the value of opinion and the role it plays in their editorial mix. Time was, the front page of a newspaper was sacrosanct. No editorial or column was to appear on such valued real estate. The idea was that by relegating opinion to clearly delineated areas of a publication, such as the back pages, then readers could read the “fair, objective” news coverage and then refer to opinion as a second option.
But that got boring, and as readers fled the staid newspapers of the past, journalists began experiment with placing columns and editorials in all sorts of places, including on the front page. Of course, these columns were clearly labeled, so readers could discern the difference between straight news and opinion.
But that got boring and now media are competing with each other for top-notch talent able to unleash opinion on a moment’s notice. And this opinion is flung far and wide, on front pages, special sections, websites, blogs, Twitter and other social media.
And that is not boring. Far from it. It is exhilarating and dangerous, informative and damaging.
Arthur Brisbane addressed this topic recently when explaining changes in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section, now called Sunday Review. The change, he note, “marks a decided turn toward more opinion journalism.”
We took note of this rush to opinion journalism at the end of 2010 in predicting that publications would make changes enhancing point-of-view journalism.
David Kaplan of Paid Content attributes the desire to insert more opinion journalism as a driving force behind changes at Reuters.com, as well as Bloomberg and Dow Jones.
“Bloomberg, Reuters and Dow Jones have been working diligently on becoming more “consumer facing,” that is, appealing to wider professional audience than the financial markets professionals who subscribe to their respective services. The feeling is that as the business of news is flattened on the web, where traditional print brands are effectively rendered equal in terms of distribution and reach, these financial information companies can expand their presence to both readers and advertisers, thereby enhancing their core services.
"That’s why Reuters has gone on such a hiring binge and has been aiming for prestigious journalism prizes with its long-form “enterprise reporting” and hiring star reporters like the New York Times’ Rohde. It’s also why Bloomberg hired former NYT op-ed editor David Shipley and one-time Clinton Administration-era Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin to run its opinion features.”
But taken to its extreme, there is a real danger to mixing the power of media with a strong, albeit clearly stated, point of view. And for a sample of extreme media, look to the disarray among the liberal and conservative newspapers in the U.K.
On Sunday, Rupert Murdoch closed one of the oldest and highest selling newspapers in the U.K., The News of the World, after allegations that the paper illegally eavesdropped on the phone messages of murder and terror victims, politicians and celebrities.
The media in Great Britain are known for over-the-top slanted reporting and exceedingly aggressive reporting tactics. The News of the World took these to an extreme that has damaged reputations, put hundreds out of work and ended an institution.
Howard Kurtz, who left the Washington Post for the Daily Beast because he wanted more freedom to express his opinion, wrote today that the U.S. media may not be far behind the U.K.’s tabloid.
So as media rush to herald “opinion-based journalism” watch for those who slip from publishing more point-of-view information to abusive, obnoxious and potentially illegal practices. To see how quickly this shift can occur, just ask former commentator Mark Halperin.
Is it my imagination or are there more end-of-year lists and predictions than ever? It would make sense, as there are more sources of information available to us than ever. Or perhaps my appetite for this media tradition every December is waning.
These lists can be poignant, whimsical, silly or just plain ridiculous. The best offer perspective on the year that was and some insight into the year that will be.
This list of the biggest PR blunders of 2010 is entertaining. Of course, at the top of the list is BP’s handling of the oil spill crisis in the Gulf. However, Richard Carufel ranks NPR’s firing of Juan Williams at No. 3 on the list. I’m not sure about the NPR blunder was that significant. But an opportunity was lost to examine the growing problem the media have with uninformed – and often loud -- opinion.
The New York Times released a thoughtful, moving compilation of photos from 2010. I defy you to review this without humble reflection on the world’s joys and disasters in the past 12 months.
For one of the more interesting overviews on the state of the media, see these survey results from Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab. Here are excerpts:
Q. “Who will have more traffic: The New York Times or The Huffington Post?
A. “Old media wins — barely: 57 percent say the NYT, 43 percent HuffPo.”
Q. “Who will have more traffic: The Daily Beast or Newsweek?” (The two merged in 2010)
A. “Perhaps a trick question, depending on how NewsBeast finally decides to handle its URLs. But 83 percent think the Beast half will win out.”
Q. “Name two media companies you expect to merge in 2011, a la Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
A. The answers were a random spray: no two predictions matched up. Some of the more intriguing: AOL and Yahoo, Tribune and Yahoo, USWeekly and The Huffington Post, Slate and The Atlantic, TBD and the Washington City Paper, Clear Channel and Pandora, Politico and Roll Call, and Gannettand Groupon.”
Q. “How many local sites will Patch have in operation by the end of 2011? (It had 475 on 12/6/2010.)
A. “Most folks believe Patch will still be under 1,000 by next year’s end.”
Here’s a few prediction of my own:
High profile journalists will continue to make news as they leave their traditional media organizations for more cutting edge publications such as AOL, the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post.
Many more lower profile journalists will do the same, but make fewer headlines.
Wikileaks will continue to leak.
Many more lower profile leaks will continue to pepper media reports.
The presence and value of opinion will grow in the mainstream media.
Uninformed opinion will become more of a problem, resulting in more apologies and firings. (See Juan Williams and NPR.)
Do you have any others you wish to share?
Let’s be honest. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC is paid to give his opinion as he reports on the current events of the day. He reports with a particular political slant, and his audience watches him with full knowledge of his politics.
Today, he was suspended indefinitely for giving political donations to people he interviewed on his show and who share his political viewpoint. What is so wrong with his spending his money to support his stated views?
Less than three weeks ago, Juan Williams was fired from NPR after making prejudicial statements while on Fox News. Williams is paid to provide his opinion. He provides it with a particular political slant, and his audience is fully aware of his politics.
The media reflect the events and conversation of our country. The difference today is that the media are not only reflecting the national political debate, increasingly they are taking part in it. In Williams’ case, he even mixed in some poorly chosen words with his freely expressed opinion.
The fact is the media are drifting into the realm of opinion. In some cases, they have been sprinting toward it. Objectivity, what some call bland or boring reporting, is missing from an ever growing number of media outlets.
If the media wish to report with a slant, they ought to just come out and declare it. Reporters paid to express their opinion, often vociferously, should be able to disclose if they are interviewing someone on their show that they intend to support financially. As media expert Jeff Jarvis said on the Huffington Post, “The problem with Olbermann's contributions is not that he made them, but that he hid them.”
The media that embrace more opinion in their journalism need to embrace more transparency as well. Of course, that just one person's opinion.
Update: Keith Olbermann's suspension ends tomorrow evening when he returns to his show. In trying to draw a line between Fox News and her cable channel, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow argued that MSNBC's enforcement of its policies illustrates the difference between Fox News and MSNBC. In reality, the channels simply fall at slightly different positions on the opinion spectrum. Both offer opinion far more often than objective journalism.
Remember the Rodney King riots? It was 1992 and the nation was captivated as night after night, the media chronicled unrest in Los Angeles, triggered after the acquittal of four white police officers in the roadside beating of King, a black motorist.
The trial, verdict and resulting outrage troubled my colleagues at the Akron Beacon Journal for what it revealed about the status of race relations in the United States. During the next year, we used the power of communications to examine race in our country and initiate a very honest conversation about race in Akron, Ohio. The newspaper triggered a series of community meetings that attracted hundreds, a new year’s pledge by thousands to improve the race conversation in our community and a nonprofit effort to improve understanding between races and cultures. The project won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that year and placed Akron among the nation’s leading communities in the conversation on race.
This week’s firing of NPR commentator Juan Williams for making an honest but bigoted statement brought back that powerful experience of 1992. Williams was fired for what he said on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, where Williams was a part-time commentator.
Williams was talking about Muslims in the U.S. when he said that all Muslims wearing traditional dress made him nervous on airplanes.
"I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
Not only does Williams stereotype, he fails to admit his reactions are both honest and flawed.
Williams follows a lengthening line of journalists who lost their jobs or ended their careers for making stereotypical, bigoted public comments. In an excellent column, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch reviews this unfortunate group: CNN’s Rick Sanchez and Octavia Nasr, Hearst’s Helen Thomas among others.
As the media world debates whether Williams, Sanchez or the others should have lost their jobs over their comments, there is little recognition of the opportunity lost. There is so much opinion in the media today, (Rupert Murdoch recently referred to this media noise as "bloggers and bloviators") that the value of informed opinion is being lost.
Media can be a powerful tool that impacts and improves the national conversation. Expressing raw opinion is not enough. Expressing raw opinion with the goal of improved understanding is a valued – but increasingly rare -- goal.
Just ask several thousand people in Akron.