Someone writing a message on a yellow page that says "opinion" with a pen. In the background, there are sheets of papers.

Pressing Issues

Opinion Journalism Is Broken

The goal of newspapers is to inform the public. But increasingly, they are publishing opinion pieces as fact, misleading and confusing readers, and undermining their own agenda—and quite possibly, our democracy.

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It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that a significant segment of U.S. news consumers can’t tell the difference between what constitutes “news” and “opinion”—but it’s not entirely their fault. Between news outlets struggling to accurately and consistently label opinion content as “opinion,” the challenges and limits that come with a disaggregated phone-first consumption model, and a general lack of media literacy around what constitutes a factual statement compared to a statement of opinion, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

We live in a confusing world where fact and fiction blend together, and what should be sources of clarity—i.e. newspapers— may actually be functioning as sources of confusion, making them ripe for bad actors looking to exploit the aforementioned vulnerabilities in the system to push dubious information in service of a political agenda. This is, quite obviously, a problem on its own. If the goal of newspapers is to inform the public, yet they publish materials that mislead it, aren’t they undermining themselves?  

For instance, on August 12, 2020, Newsweek published an opinion piece by attorney John Eastman titled, “Some Questions for Kamala Harris About Eligibility.” In it, Eastman, who has since become synonymous with former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, argued that Vice-President Kamala Harris may not meet the requirements for office as laid out by the U.S. Constitution, and therefore be ineligible to run for president or vice-president. Eastman’s piece claimed that despite being born in Oakland, California, Harris was not a “natural-born” citizen because neither of her parents was a U.S. citizen at the time of her birth.

This claim, quite obviously, was nonsense. Just a day before Newsweek published Eastman’s opinion, had debunked the take, which at the time existed primarily as fringe, racist Facebook memes and a blog post at the right-wing American Thinker website designed to subject her to the same sort of “birther” arguments that Trump used against former President Barack Obama for years. The purpose of Eastman’s opinion piece wasn’t to make a serious argument about whether Harris was eligible to run for vice-president, but rather, to spread the rumor and give the smear a sheen of credibility by being published in a once-reputable news outlet.

Tom Fitton, of the right-wing group Judicial Watch, tweeted Eastman’s article the following day, writing, “Is Kamala Harris ineligible to be Vice President under the U.S. Constitution’s ‘Citizenship Clause’?” Soon after, Trump campaign advisor Jenna Ellis retweeted Fitton’s post. When ABC News’ Will Steakin asked Ellis for comment, she called Harris’s eligibility “an open question.”

That same day, Trump was asked about the claim, to which he replied, “I just heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements. And by the way, the lawyer who wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer. I have no idea if that’s right. I would have assumed the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice-president. But that’s very serious. They’re saying that she doesn’t qualify because she wasn’t born in this country.” 

Once again, she was born in Oakland.

Within days, right-wing media outlets were piggybacking on whatever remnants of credibility Newsweek had left, with The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles spreading the claim on his show and favorably referencing Eastman’s article. Meanwhile, local and mainstream national media outlets were put in the position of having to devote time and energy to debunking the claim, leaving behind a trail of more than 1.2 million Google search results for the words “Kamala,” “Harris,” and “eligibility.” All that because a once-reputable media outlet that has since been turned into a place for right-wing extremists to air their views.

For another example, look no further than The New York Times. In 2017, the Times hired Bret Stephens away from the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal to “bring a new perspective to bear on the news.” In his debut column, Stephens argued that the science was not “settled” when it came to climate change. His evidence? Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was pretty confident, too, and look how that turned out. For real, that’s his argument. Now, of course, Stephens framed his argument with a straw man by presenting his ideological opponents as “claiming total certainty about the science of climate change.” Scientists know better than to make such claims, and I imagine Stephens knows this as well. Predictably, climate scientists hammered Stephens for misrepresenting their work and underselling the threat posed by a warming Earth.

During the June 2, 2017, White House press briefing, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt fielded a question that was asked about statements he made months earlier about “tremendous disagreement about the degree of human impact” on climate change. He defended himself by pulling from Stephens’s piece.

“People have called me a climate skeptic or a climate denier—I don’t even know what it means to deny the climate. I would say that there are climate exaggerators,” said Pruitt. “In fact, many of you—I don’t know if you saw this article or not, but “The Climate of Complete Certainty,” by Bret Stephens, that was in The New York Times talked about— and I’ll just read a quote because I think it a very important quote from this article—‘Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the IPCC knows that while modest, 0.8 degree Celsius warming of the Earth has occurred since 1880. Much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. ‘To say this isn’t to deny science isn’t to acknowledge it honestly.’”

And while Pruitt misquoted Stephens by omitting the words “… is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming,” following the words “since 1880,” it was an example of a bad actor (Stephens) laundering a bad idea (climate change skepticism) through a legitimate outlet (the New York Times). The publication of anti-science opinion columns helps provide cover for anti-science politicians to implement anti-science policies. Just as importantly, outlets that publish these sorts of dubious opinion pieces end up undermining some of the extremely good work being done by climate reporters.

Just weeks after Stephens’s piece that used Clinton’s loss as justification for climate skepticism, Times climate reporters published a breakdown of the 23 environmental rules changed by the Trump administration during its first 100 days in office. And soon after that, the paper published a fantastic multi-part piece about collapsing ice sheets in Antarctica. And later that month, another article highlighted 50 years of melting ice in Glacier National Park. There’s no shortage of truly fantastic, informative work being put out by major newspapers like the Times, but the obsession with publishing takes that are contrarian for the sake of contrarianism—the description of Stephens’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize win for commentary includes the line, “for his incisive columns on American foreign policy and domestic politics, often enlivened by a contrarian twist”—functions as a slap in the face to reporters who actually do the work and know what they’re talking about.

Another challenge has to do with how we get our news. For most of us, the days of picking up a newspaper and thumbing through it are a thing of the past. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that 86% of U.S. adults get their news “often” (60%) or “sometimes” (26%) from smartphones, tablets, or computers. In contrast, just 10% of adults say they “often” get their news from print publications, with 22% saying “sometimes.” 

Part of the problem, Washington Post media columnist and author of the forthcoming memoir, Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-stained Life, Margaret Sullivan tells me, has to do with the method by which we consume media. As readers have shifted to using phones for their news intake, it’s created what she calls an “intense firehose of information.”

“There’s no longer much sense of ‘here’s our news section’ and ‘here’s our opinion section,’ which was clear in the days of print, and is even semi-clear if you go to a news outlet’s home page,” she tells me. “Social media adds to this when, say, the New York Times tweets out an opinion piece and may not make it clear that this isn’t news coverage.”

Sullivan supports the explicit labeling of opinion pieces, noting that it helped when the Post began adding a “perspective” tag to her columns. Still, this message isn’t always clear to readers, which inevitably leaves her with the task of responding to angry emails accusing her of printing her opinions by explaining that yes, that’s specifically what she gets paid to do.

The disaggregation effect of mobile-first media consumption is, in Sullivan’s words, “a serious problem because it adds to the idea that all news coverage is infused with sharp opinion and therefore it’s biased and you can’t trust it.”

In other words, even if it’s not necessarily elevating the credibility of opinion journalists, it’s almost certainly chipping away at the credibility of an outlet’s reporters.

Sullivan is far from the only opinion columnist I spoke with who sees phones and social media as hurdles readers are forced to overcome. Former Fast Company columnist Joe Berkowitz describes it as a flattening that erases a lot of the carefully considered structures a magazine or newspaper has implemented in efforts to address the blurring of the news/editorial lines.

“Most posts from news outlets are now flattened into the single category of ‘news,’” Berkowitz says. “Facebook may have further complicated, or dropped the death blow on the reader’s ability to differentiate between news and opinion, but I think it’s correct that this was all set into motion by the mass migration from print to digital.”

Rex Huppke, a USA TODAY opinion columnist, offers an interesting point on this topic that I hadn’t previously considered. When I asked about the role of social media in blurring the line between news and opinion, he makes the case that newspapers and journalists understand that this is an issue and have adapted in various ways over the years, but that there’s one thing that simply can’t be accounted for: what readers choose to do with articles once they’ve gone out.

“At USA TODAY, my columns and other opinion pieces online are clearly marked either “Columnist” or “Opinion,” and those words are even highlighted in yellow on the website,” he says. “I like that approach because it doesn’t leave much room for confusion.”

But, he adds, this is where the challenges of preserving context can face some limitations.

“I do think we’re now seeing social media posts from newspapers that more clearly state when something is opinion. A lot of the times the tweets will pull a line from the column, then add, ‘…writes opinion columnist Rex Huppke’ or something along those lines,” he says. “Where the real problem develops is when people take a piece of opinion writing and share it themselves, pawning it off as if it’s news writing. That’s the part that’s near-impossible to control, and the part that requires broader education on media literacy.”

One might argue that the best answer to these problems is to simply eliminate opinion sections entirely. Some news outlets have experimented with opinion-free publishing with varying degrees of success. For instance, Block Club Chicago, a news co-operative that launched in 2018, has made neighborhood-level reporting its primary goal, sidestepping an opinion section entirely. There’s certainly an argument to be made for that model. For instance, as Sullivan noted, audiences being unable to distinguish reporting from opinion may lead them to assume that all writing is steeped in bias. It’s tempting to “solve” that problem by getting rid of the opinions, which is certainly something I’ve considered proposing during my years as a media critic. But upon further reflection, I don’t think that’s the answer.

Columbia Journalism Review chief digital writer and author of the When the Going Gets Weird… newsletter Mathew Ingram was kind enough to offer his take on this complicated issue. I asked what he’d do if he were given free rein to revamp a major newspaper’s opinion pages.

“The first thing I would do is dramatically reduce the output of opinion pieces,” he tells me. “I read somewhere that under James Bennet, the [New York Times] op-ed section was publishing as many as 25 pieces a day, which is a ridiculously large number. Instead of trying to compete with the internet in terms of volume, I would try to get the paper to focus on a couple of important topics every day—topics that are in sync with the newspaper’s editorial stance—and find a way to say something meaningful about them. And then add pieces by people with strong or noteworthy opinions about interesting and/or relevant topics.”

Good opinion writing shouldn’t take away from the strength of a media outlet’s reporting. Good opinion writing is heavily fact-checked, thoroughly edited, and strives to make whatever arguments are available with the facts as they are. It’s when opinion writers stray from the facts—like when then–New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss cited an “Antifa” Twitter account that was actually a parody being run by people on the far-right as evidence that “the left” is intolerant—that opinion sections contribute to the problems discussed here. When media outlets don’t hold their opinion writers to the same level of factual scrutiny that reporters are held to, their reputations, as well as the reputations of the industry as a whole, suffer. A well-written and well-argued opinion piece, on the other hand, can help readers get a fuller understanding of the world and a new appreciation for different perspectives.

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