Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

“Readers see articles posted on social media or shared by friends via email or messaging apps. It needs to be immediately obvious to the reader whether that content is news or opinion, and that’s something the industry is sorely failing at. “

No marketing slogan will make readers believe that journalism is unbiased, accurate, and real until we get serious about helping them navigate our different types of coverage. 2018 may not be the year we solve the opinion vs. news challenge, but it will be the year we will take it seriously and dedicate resources to remedying it.

Before the internet, the opinion section was just that: its own section. We used changes in print design to signal to readers that this content was different: ragged-right alignment, italicized headlines, columnist headshots. These standards were okay because they were in the context of being on a separate page clearly labeled as opinion.

Most readers today find our stories by directly visiting article pages, not by navigating to a specific section front. They see articles posted on social media or shared by friends via email or messaging apps. It needs to be immediately obvious to the reader whether that content is news or opinion, and that’s something the industry is sorely failing at.

The Wall Street Journal has a section called Review, where we invite people to share their ideas, but it’s not clearly marked as opinion, and you don’t know the author doesn’t work for the Journal until the very end. The Kansas City Star, a McClatchy paper, doesn’t have any labeling at all on their opinion pieces.

More news organizations are adding “Opinion” to headlines and social media share messaging. That’s a good start, and it can be especially useful if you are working within the constraints of your content management system.

But too often, the standard solution is to throw a label on the top of the story and feel good that we’ve done our part. The implication is that if the reader misunderstands, it’s their fault. Our readers aren’t stupid and deserve far more respect than we’ve been giving them.

Labels aren’t helpful when we have a slew of terms we use whose meanings are misunderstood frequently: columns, analysis, editorial, opinion, commentary, essay, viewpoint, perspective. These terms represent less of a black-and-white situation and more of a spectrum of reported news to first-person opinion. It’s no wonder readers are commonly confused and aren’t sure if they can trust what they read.

This is a design challenge. Throwing a small label on an article page busy with annoying ads, popups asking you to sign up for a newsletter, and breaking-news banners isn’t sufficient. It’s our job to solve it in a meaningful way that goes beyond tweetstorms that don’t reach all of our readers. Many news organizations are still using labels that denote the section the piece belongs to, but it’s more useful to readers to denote news vs. opinion rather than entertainment or science — especially if the section name means more to the journalists than it does the readers.

There have been positive strides in this initiative. The Washington Post labels stories that aren’t news. I like this approach rather than labeling all stories because it makes the non-news stories stand out and provides much-needed white space.

Mic takes it a step further and explains what their terms mean on the article page.

News organizations must take this challenge seriously and work with design and product teams to establish guidelines that help differentiate content. Here are the questions we should think about in 2018:

  • What terms do we use across our site to denote non-news stories?
  • Are these terms consistently used across the organization?
  • Do our readers know what these terms mean?
  • How will we communicate to readers what these terms mean to us?
  • What labeling can we use to let readers know if this story is news or opinion?
  • How can we implement better design to make it more obvious when we have opinion content?

We must also think of this as an industry-wide problem. The Duke Reporters’ Lab’s research found inconsistent terminology across news organizations trying to distinguish opinion content. Our readers aren’t just reading content from our site, and we need to make it easier for them to understand this concept across their entire news diet. A shared vocabulary would be a good place to start.

Note: Thanks for Brittany Shammas and Jessica Lipscomb for editing.

Rachel Schallom works on newsroom transformation and digital strategy at The Wall Street Journal.

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