IMHO: Is Opinion Journalism the new Journalism?

Having reached a certain stage in my life and career – here at Landis I’m the senior account supervisor – I’m the first to admit that I’ve got some rather well-defined and otherwise stubborn opinions which inform many of my day-to-day decisions. I’m far from unique in this regard. Nobody is immune from opinion. Opinions are like sunrises: they sometimes arrive too soon, they can often be beautiful, and they can shine brightly or be shrouded in clouds. But above all, they are inevitable.

Yes, opinion is everywhere. And, most notably, opinions are shaping the way we receive our news. The phenomenon of opinion-injected news is not new. In fact, the story is so old and belabored that I am reluctant to discuss it here. But after seeing yesterday’s fantastic compendium of opinion writing excerpts in the New York Times, published to commemorate the 40th birthday of its Op-Ed Page, I was compelled to share my own, well, opinions on the matter.

It’s worth considering that, in the 40 years since journalism was given the new twist of opinion with the advent of the op-ed page, we have devolved into a world in which opinion has come to take the place of fact. When the editor John Oakes at the Times began publishing the opinions of select novelists, essayists, and other contemporary minds, on the page across from its Editorials (thus the name “op-ed”), I wonder if even he envisioned the impact it would have on journalism 40 years hence.

Today we’ve got newspapers and magazines devoted entirely to opinion journalism. Cable news networks have flourished in the garden of opinion – having in many instances completely discarded objectivity in favor of opinion – the more extreme the better. And, most dismaying, many of the best newspapers in the world, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times included, have increasingly obscured the walls between its opinion pages and its news pages.

There are solid arguments to be made in support of the notion that objectivity in journalism is dead – dispatched by slow death at the hand of the op-ed page born 40 years ago. But as a former journalist myself, I am not willing to yet concede the argument. I still believe that objectivity in journalism not only still exists, but continues to provide the critical life blood of the industry – however anemic that industry may now be. And, especially since I switched my focus years ago to the public relations side of the equation, my opinion that great journalism is still be practiced by great journalists is even more stubborn. I have the pleasure of working every day with journalists from all over the nation who practice the age-old craft of objectivity. And I view the role of public relations as one of helping the media practice that craft.

Now, before you bring me to task on the preceding statement – I know that many view the public relations industry with the same degree of skepticism as they do journalism – let me make one further, more compelling point about the topic. Journalism, like PR, is only as good as the individuals performing it. Even as a PR professional, I can only take a story so far on behalf of a client. Ultimately, it’s up to the media professional to develop a story based on the information provided and – most important – independently gathered. In my experience, most journalists still operate this way. Do they have opinions on the stories they write? Undoubtedly. But if they’re being true to their profession, opinions are usually checked at the door when journalists are developing a story.

Perhaps mine is an outdated notion. Quaint, even. A 40-year-old relic of an era gone by. And please, if I’m misguided or being naïve here, let me know. But I, for one, am not ready to wave the white flag on objectivity in journalism. And, ultimately, it’s up the consumer of media to identify the line – blurrier than ever – separating objectivity from opinion.

What’s your opinion? Email them to me here: [email protected]

PS – Here’s an “opinion” we can all agree on: SF’s own Warren Hellman throws a great free party. His Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival takes place this weekend. It’s free. It’s fun. And that’s a fact!

5 thoughts on “IMHO: Is Opinion Journalism the new Journalism?

  1. Rob,
    I would just like to say that I found your article to not only be extremely well-written, but thought provoking as well. I agree with you on the belief that in order for a journalist to constitute as being, well, a journalist, an iota of their personal opinion will not be found in their work. However, I have to ask, regarding issues such as abortion and death penalty, I believe opinions on the matter have much to do with an individual’s background and upbringing. So to be presented with an assignment covering an issue such as that, how does one compose a passionate, thorough article, when the ‘presence’ required to bring the piece to life, cannot be utilized? An excellent story is composed of more than just mere facts, such as who, what, where, when and why; I find the most compelling stories can be distinguished by what can be found between the basics. I defer to the age old question, of how (and is it possible?) to make a story interesting and exciting, without blurring the lines between fact, fiction and conjecture.
    Just a thought….

  2. Rob, Certainly, the lines of objectivity in journalism are blurring, if not breaking down completly. Exhibit One: Fox News calling itself “fair and balanced” when it has become nothing more than the official organ of the RNC (i’m sure the same can be said about MSNBC, but not to the same degree). There used to be a clear distinction about reporting and editorializing, at least that’s what they taught me in journalism school. The problem with bloggers, as I see it, is that they are primarily editors by nature delivering opinions. Worse, they have no “editorial” oversight. As the country continues to move towards receiving news in a digital format, they are digesting and relying on information that comes from an opinionated perspective. Hence, a growing number of Americans are angry at the “mainstream media” because they their brand of news is straightforward without taking sides. So our entire definition of “news” is shifting, just as our diets have shifted to more fats and sugars — and neither are good for our bodies or minds! This became perfectly clear during the Shirley Sherrod fiasco recently on two counts — that a blogger could be so blatantly dishonest with no resoect for the news, and that the mainstream media was so ready to pounce on the story without doing its proper due diligence. Hopefully we all learned a lesson from that. I don’t know what the answer is, but thanks for giving me this opportunity to vent! Best wishes

  3. Is the bigger question here whether journalism — even in its purest, most sincere form — ever free of opinion? We’re human and we like to speak our minds. Sometimes that’s couched in the conventions of media outlets. That’s not to say objectivity isn’t a goal, but it’s hard to keep all bias out of an article, whether that is manifested in a word choice or two or a prevalent tone throughout the article.
    The rise of citizen journalism, myriad online news sites that cater toward every leaning and belief, and even more openness in embracing opinion in major media outlets creates a competitive playing field for “objective” journalists.
    That said, I’m still bothered when I see overt opinion shaping what should be a factual recounting of news, but I’m aware enough to take advantage when it makes sense for my clients.

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