April 16, 2008

Whither Opinion Journalism?

Clark Hoyt examined the issue of analysis versus opinion writing in his Sunday column. I think his conclusion gets it right:

News reporters should provide context. They should challenge false assertions by authority. They should write articles giving their expert analysis. But it may be one step too far to have the same reporter write a column with voice and opinion–explicit or implicit–and news articles that are supposed to be completely impartial. That is taking a big risk with the trust of readers already inclined to believe that the news media, including The Times, are biased.

Hoyt, and others represented in the column, struggle with the differences, if any, between analysis and opinion. I think a line exists, but it can be very difficult to see sometimes.

The key for me is good reporting in both analysis and opinion writing. The difference is one of intention: opinion should be about changing hearts and minds with knowledge and wisdom; analysis should be about knowledge and wisdom (i.e. organized information embedded in a context and the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems). Analysis, therefore, should not promote specific agendas; it should examine agendas.

I don’t want to suggest that a Golden Age of opinion journalism has ever existed, but it does seem to me that the state of opinion journalism today is very poor. Columnists have apparently lost the desire or ability to report as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. They apparently intend to change hearts and minds with mere blather. What we have today (with a few notable exceptions across the political spectrum) is a legion of pundits. Pundits are not journalists.

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