News or opinion? Online, it's hard to tell

News organizations aren’t doing enough to help readers understand the difference between news, analysis and opinion. We at the Duke Reporters' Lab reached that conclusion after conducting a new study that found only 40 percent of large news organizations provide labels about article types — and nearly all of those only label opinion columns.

The Duke Reporters’ Lab examined 49 publications — 25 local newspapers and 24 national news and opinion websites — to determine how many consistently use labels to indicate article types. A team of Reporters’ Lab students examined whether the publications label editorials, news analysis, columns and reviews.

In general, we found inconsistent terminology and a lack of labeling. Some organizations provide a mix of labels that conflate article types such as news and opinion with topic labels such as local, politics and sports. The result for readers is a jumbled labeling approach that fails to consistently distinguish different types of journalism.

The findings are significant because journalists and educators are focusing on article labels as one way to address the decline in trust of the news media. Labels help readers distinguish between news and opinion so they better understand different forms of journalism and can assess allegations of bias. Readers often come to articles from links in social media and don’t know if an article is published in a news or opinion section unless it is labeled.

“People do get confused, and it’s particularly challenging these days when we’re publishing on so many different platforms,” said Washington Post editor Marty Baron when he announced the Post’s labeling approach at a Knight Foundation conference in February. “Our stuff is going out on Facebook, Apple News, Snapchat, this or that. The context that (an article) had in the print newspaper is completely lost on those other platforms. It’s important that we take steps to make sure that people understand what it is, with some sort of label that makes sense.”

The Reporters’ Lab study found The Post has the most extensive system for indicating article types of the 20 organizations that use labels. The Post website uses four main labels — opinion, analysis, perspective and review — and when readers scroll their cursors over those labels, a box appears with a brief definition.

Of the 20 organizations that did label article types, 16 only used them for the opinion section. Those labels included editorial (used on 15 news sites), commentary (seven sites), column/columnist (six sites) and letters (seven sites). Ten of the organizations that used labels were local and six were national.

Our study also revealed how readers encounter a confusing mix of labels. For the study, the Lab examined labels of article type, not the section where it appeared. But we found an approach that harkened to the newsprint days: Many publications used labels to indicate whether stories were in the local news, entertainment or sports sections. That’s helpful, but readers also need to distinguish between a news story and an opinion column or news analysis.

For example, this article in the Star Tribune appears in the Variety section with a music label. That’s a good indicator of the topic, but it doesn’t tell readers what type of story it is. A review? A news story? A first-person essay by a staff member?

We also found topic labels sometimes veered toward too specific, such as #TrumpsAmerica in the Forbes opinions section or marijuana in the Denver Post’s news section, neither of which indicated the article type. The labels were sometimes funny, clever or obscure, but these organizations missed an opportunity to describe the type of content they were producing.

We also found lots of inconsistency. Although some organizations did a slightly better job labeling article types outside the opinion section, the labels still appeared somewhat arbitrarily across the sites, often showing up on a handful of articles in one category but not all of the articles.

Another inconsistency: Even The Post doesn’t label news articles. The absence of a label is supposed to indicate it is news. The Post approach assumes that readers understand that unlabeled content is always news. But our students found it confusing, and we believe The Post should examine whether readers are really able to identify a news story when it is not labeled as such.

The study also found that organizations that do use labels are not making them visible or clear enough to readers. Students commented that the labels were “pretty easy to miss or misinterpret,” “not immediately visible if you aren’t looking for it” or “very small.”

As for the organizations that did not label articles at all, we found a pretty even local-national split. Thirteen of them were local newspapers and 16 were national organizations.

Our study indicates that news organizations can make some easy fixes to provide better guidance to readers. They should:

  • Use consistent labeling on all articles to indicate analysis, opinion, reviews and news. Although The Post is a good model for a labeling system, the lack of labels on news stories could still confuse many readers.
  • Place the labels in a prominent place at the top of articles.
  • Conduct research with readers about the most effective labels and incorporate the lessons in their publications.

Rebecca Iannucci is the manager and editor in the Duke Reporters’ Lab. Student researchers Jamie Cohen, Julia Donheiser, Amanda Lewellyn, Lizzy Raben, Asa Royal, Hank Tucker and Sam Turken contributed to this report.

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