It is no secret that the media has faced heavy criticism in the digital age. Members of the media have even been categorized by President Donald Trump, the current leader of the oldest democracy in the world, as the “opposition party” to the United States. Accusations of bias, false reporting and corruption plague the comment sections of news organizations around the world.
However, journalism is a two-way street. Journalists, and the news organizations that employ them, are always in some part driven by the focuses of the audiences to which they are beholden. In other words, in a democracy, the population gets the quality of journalism it deserves.
To better understand this disconnect, the Collegiate Times surveyed its readers to find out how knowledgeable they are about common news terminology. The survey received 108 responses, which is not representative of the population at Virginia Tech, but did yield some interesting significant results.
Newspapers use specific nomenclature to delineate intentionally biased articles by the perspective from which they are being written and by the author's affiliations. The basic terms include columns, op-eds, editorials and letters to the editor, which are all separate from regular news coverage in that they are expressly biased and aim to make an argument supported by evidence. These are separate from traditional “fair and balanced” news coverage.
The survey asked participants to answer multiple choice questions about the definitions of each of the aforementioned terms, as well as about some of their news consumption habits. Let’s go through the results.
For the question, “What is a column in a newspaper?,” 64.8 percent of people responded correctly. A column is an opinionated piece written by a staff writer at the newspaper. It is the most common form of opinionated writing in newspapers.
For the question, “What is a letter to the editor?,” also known as an LTE, 95.4 percent responded correctly with, “An independent piece submitted from a reader of the newspaper about a particular topic.” This question received the most number of correct responses.
For, “What is an op-ed?,” only 52.8 percent of people answered correctly with, “A piece authored by an independent writer who has a matter of expertise on the subject.”
The key thing to know about LTEs and op-eds is that they are submitted completely independently. Once the piece is submitted, upper-level editors at the paper will check the piece for grammatical and factual errors, but do not change the content of the piece as they are not responsible for the opinions of an independent writer. That goes in hand with the survey question, “Are newspapers responsible for the opinions of independent writers that they publish?” which 50.9 percent of respondents got correct.
Editorials, like the one you are reading right now, are yet another category of opinionated story. However, they are separate from regular columns even though they are written by the newspaper’s staff.
Almost every newspaper has what is called an “editorial board” which is comprised of the newspaper’s columnists and a set of editors that focus solely on the paper’s opinionated work. Many newspapers physically separate their editorial boards into different office spaces so as to make the distinction between their news coverage and their opinionated works. That is not universally true, though, as it depends on the size of the publication. At the Collegiate Times, because of the small size of our staff, the editorial board is comprised of the editor-in-chief, the managing editors and the opinions editor. We choose to allow the entire newsroom staff to contribute feedback before publishing our editorials.
The editorial board usually has a very obvious and stated opinion based on the pieces they publish. However, when The New York Times or the Washington Post publish an editorial, for example endorsing a particular candidate for office, that does not mean that every person at the organization has the same belief. The opinions reflected by the editorial board are theirs only. They do represent their newspaper, but they do not represent the coverage of the paper as a whole. In our survey, 44.4 percent of respondents knew this.
Why is it important to understand these terms? Well, 69.2 percent of respondents to the survey claimed to use “Print/Traditional News (Newspapers online)” as their main source of news information. At the same time, only 31.8 percent of respondents said that they always verify the type of article they are reading, meaning whether it is a column, op-ed, editorial, LTE or regular news coverage.
Television stations and radio broadcasts do not use the same terminology to categorize their content, so if you read newspapers and don’t understand the exact context of what you’re reading, it can lead you to draw incorrect conclusions about the accuracy of that content.
It can even be used strategically against you by people who wish to manipulate public opinion. In a recent newsletter sent out by the White House on March 13, a link under a section titled “News Reports” appeared to show a favorable headline in the Washington Post about the American Health Care Act, an intended replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
It is no secret that Donald Trump has had an adversarial relationship with the Post since the beginning of his campaign in 2015. A favorable headline from that particular publication would signal a huge victory for him with the “liberal media.” The link, however, directs to an article on the Washington Post’s opinions page written by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the president of the conservative think tank “American Action Forum.”
News terminology was intentionally used by the White House to try to make readers believe that a heavily opinionated argument was a piece of factual, unbiased information.
Journalists should always welcome criticism. It is important to be ruthlessly focused on improving news coverage and reporting facts at all costs. But that criticism needs to come from an audience that is well informed; one that knows exactly what it is reading and how the information they consume is being presented.
So next time you see one of your friends or family ranting on Facebook or Twitter about the biased and dishonest media, ask them to provide examples of biased coverage. You might be surprised to find out what types of articles they have been reading.