Jul 22, 2020 - Economy

Opinion sections become newsroom battlegrounds in Trump era

Illustration of an opinion section of a newspaper being erased by a giant pencil

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Employees at major newspapers are urging their bosses to reevaluate how their opinion sections operate after a slew of controversies in recent months.

Why it matters: Critics allege that mainstream news companies are sacrificing their journalistic integrity by pandering to conservative voices in an attempt to produce balanced coverage in the Trump era. Employees fear that such efforts, combined with journalistic errors, tarnish the newsrooms' reputation.

Driving the news: A group of 280 journalists at The Wall Street Journal and its sister publications at Dow Jones sent a letter to the paper's publisher Tuesday asking for clearer differentiation between news and opinion content online, The Wall Street Journal reports.

  • Their main concern is that the Journal should better distinguish opinion from news because of factual errors made in opinion pieces.

Opinion-page controversies have also flared at The New York Times, and to an extent The Washington Post.

The New York Times faced an employee upheaval after its opinion section published a controversial piece in June by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

  • Hundreds of Times employees organized a protest on social media saying the piece put Black employees lives in danger. The outcry eventually led to the dramatic resignation of James Bennett, the Times' opinion editor.
  • Weeks later, opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss resigned, charging she had become a victim of "a 'new McCarthyism' that has taken root at the paper of record."

The Washington Post was slammed by media critics last summer for publishing an opinion piece by Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist and Trump supporter.

  • The piece, which defended the White House's controversial "Social Media Summit," contained factual inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims of conservative bias by social media platforms.
That both @nytopinion and @PostOpinions section have decided to relax their own standards of verification so as to get enough "conservative" voices into the mix is another way in which asymmetric polarization fries the circuits of the mainstream press."
— Media critic and journalism professor Jay Rosen, on Twitter last summer

The big picture: Some of this tension results from the migration of decades-old print opinion sections online.

  • In print, readers could follow cues like physical location within a paper to be able to easily distinguish what was opinion from what was news. The term "op-ed" originally meant "the page opposite the editorial page."
  • Opinion pieces were physically segregated from the rest of the paper in a way that they aren't online, making it harder for readers to discern the difference between reporting that aspires to neutrality and opinion journalism that doesn't.

Average readers, even those who are digitally literate, can't always tell the difference between news and opinion online.

  • When asked to identify whether a piece of online content is news or opinion, "36% of Americans with high levels of political awareness (those who are knowledgeable about politics and regularly get political news) correctly identified all five factual news statements, compared with about half as many (17%) of those with low political awareness," according to a study by Pew Research Center.
  • The study also found that even when news companies do use labels to identify types of content, the labels had only a modest impact on users separating factual statements from opinion.

Our thought bubble: These tensions have existed for years, but they have become amplified by an increasingly hyper-partisan news cycle driven by social media.

  • Traditional newsrooms tried to draw clear boundaries between news and opinion with separate management structure and offices. News organizations that emerged during the digital era rarely publish editorials and more freely mix news and opinion content in their pages, while many individual journalists there are freer to adopt points of view even in reported pieces.

Be smart: As Axios has previously noted, these conflicts are emerging as the media industry faces a massive business transformation, moving from a reliance on corporate advertising dollars to support from consumer subscription dollars.

  • Subscribers today want to support news organizations that reinforce their world views — and are quick to cancel their subscriptions when they're unhappy with what they read.
  • For example, The New York Times' publisher had to personally appeal to subscribers who cancelled their subscriptions in 2017 after the paper hired Bret Stephens, a conservative opinion columnist who had questioned the science of climate change.
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