In print, it’s fairly clear what’s an opinion piece and what’s a news article. Online, things aren’t so clear. Confusion fuels readers’ complaints that opinions, political agendas and bias are creeping into reporters’ work.
Research has shown that a lack of labeling can lead to reader confusion. In recent years, online news outlets have begun including the word “opinion” in bold text at the top of articles, sometimes highlighted in yellow or even directly in the headline.
“In our dream world, opinion content all begins with the word ‘opinion,’ a colon and then the headline, just to make it absolutely clear,” said Joy Mayer, founder and director of Trusting News, a nonprofit helping newsrooms earn trust and credibility. “It’s the only clear word to use.”
Though journalists may not realize it, other conventions use industry jargon, said Mayer. Readers don’t always know what “editorial” means, and the word itself has multiple uses. Generally speaking, an editorial is an opinionated column, but confusingly, the editorial department is the news department of a publication. (To further the confusion, Merriam-Webster defines editorial as “of or relating to an editor or editing.”) Similarly, some newspapers put the last name of the columnist at the front of a headline, but that practice is also occasionally used for sourcing.
Mayer said that journalists tend to fall back on conventions that have been in place for a long time.
“We often tend to really overestimate how close attention audiences are paying and audience interpretation of the page furniture that we put in place that we think signifies what kind of content they’re getting,” said Mayer.
Page furniture describes the design elements and packaging of an online article that help readers discern what they’re looking at. Damon Kiesow, Knight chair in digital editing and producing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, calls these signals “affordances.”
“Affordances are cues that signal how the user should interact with a product. They should be clear,” said Kiesow, who is researching specific measures papers can take to combat this confusion. “We don’t need to make digital look visually more like print, but we need to understand what are those aspects of print that are communicating these signals and adapt those signals in whatever way is appropriate to digital.”
Kiesow believes labeling is an important first step, but it’s not enough — a well-designed door shouldn’t need a push-pull label. Designers and editors need to look at the issue from a human-centered design perspective and completely rethink the issue, he said.
His preliminary research shows that despite labeling, readers still find affordances confusing. This poor digital design imposes a large cognitive load on the consumer, who needs to make far more judgments when reading an article online about what to read and how to interpret stories.
“Readers are not going to pay for content if they feel like they’re doing all the work in the relationship,” Kiesow said. “By removing barriers to the news, removing barriers to understanding, removing barriers to usability, we make the product more valuable. Journalism is only half of the product; the user experience and the journey around the journalism is the other half the product, and that’s what we need to work on.”
Beyond labeling and page design, some opinion editors are actively trying to engage and educate their audiences on media literacy. At the Miami Herald, editorial page editor Nancy Ancrum writes to confused readers, explaining that columnists are, in fact, paid to opine. Meanwhile, at The Tennessean in Nashville, opinion and engagement director David Plazas makes videos interviewing opinion contributors about their pieces.
“I went to journalism school and I learned about all these labels, but if I weren’t a journalist, and I hadn’t had that experience, I might not make that distinction unless I was a daily reader,” said Plazas. “Especially when people are saturated with information in the digital landscape, we have to be very mindful of the fact that they may not notice that something’s an opinion or a sports story.”
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In print, opinion columns are always at the back of the paper’s first section, editorials are typically on the left-hand side of one of the last pages and there might be an editorial cartoon or two as well. Print readers often pay for a delivery subscription for one or maybe two papers and they’re familiar with their papers’ design.
Online readers are not as loyal. They may visit a news outlet’s website only once or twice and thus aren’t familiar with the paper’s conventions and labels.
“These readers need a much more distinct, strong, clear, unavoidable signal (online) that this is an opinion content,” said Kiesow.
Mayer emphasized that page furniture is lost when someone comes to an article online through search or social media. Layout changes as stories move from one platform to another, too; an article’s presentation on a phone is different from its presentation on a computer screen. She suggested adding explainers at the top of articles or pop-up boxes defining terms like “opinion,” “editorial” and “letter to the editor.”
“Pixels on a phone screen are in short supply and so it can be tough to think about layering more things at the top of the story,” said Mayer. “But I think when it comes to our credibility and people’s ability to fully understand what they’re looking at, it seems like to me like it’s worth the investment.”
Many opinion editors, Plazas and Ancrum included, agree that the onus falls on the media industry to address this confusion, not the readers.
“Journalism is about making sense of the world, helping individuals understand what’s happening in their communities,” said Kiesow. “Design should be about helping readers understand journalism.”
Eliana Miller is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College. You can reach her on Twitter @ElianaMM23, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.