On Danish television recently, a conspiracy theorist named Michael Kastis was describing what he believed to be Bill Gates’ ghostly connections to the global vaccine industry. His audience, a friendly journalist named Mads Ellesøe, interrupted him.
“Where does that come from, I ask stupidly? Do we know this?”
Michael grabbed a printed article dotted with yellow markups.
“Washington Times … April 2, 2020 …”
“It says ‘opinion’ here,” said Ellesøe. “So it’s a column.”
“Then it doesn’t count?” asked Kastis, looking confused.
His misunderstanding took place in a documentary exploring the rising number of people who follow conspiracies that aired on Danish public television in the fall, the title of which roughly translates to “The Conspiracy Theorists Have the Floor.” But the problem with recognizing trustworthy articles solid enough to build a worldview on runs much deeper and concerns the wider public. We in the news industry shouldn’t be surprised. By flooding the internet with opinions, we’ve helped muddy the waters around the only product that makes us uniquely useful to people: reported journalism.
Distinguishing research-based journalism from opinion is not a trivial task. When University of Texas at Austin researched the perception of ordinary internet denizens, an abysmal 13 percent noticed an “opinion” tag. The project concluded that “overall, people did not notice the labels. In fact, what label people remembered had little bearing on what label they were shown.”
Journalists might argue that the tone of the writing should make an opinion piece easily recognizable from a properly reported news article. Not really. As someone who spent years teaching and editing journalistic writing, I guarantee you that an average college student will not easily distinguish an explanatory article written in a personal tone from an opinion piece that uses quotes and numbers to power its claim. Even journalists would have a hard time distinguishing the two when skimming news sources online.
Which is another factor we tend to forget: Casual readers of online news — meaning most people — will typically encounter an article while scrolling on a social media site. They will browse headlines, occasionally clicking on one to half-scan the text. Thirty seconds later, they probably won’t even remember which news site they had visited.
When choosing what headlines to interact with, our brains will often pick opinion pieces over reported articles with more ambiguity. Opinion pieces differ from news by their level of conviction and emotional appeal, both of which fuel social media virality. It is much easier to punch up a headline when pushing a claim than when pursuing some complicated matter through reporting.
Luckily, many legacy publishers have realized the problem and taken steps to address it. The Washington Post now places the word OPINION in front of column headlines, while the Chicago Tribune leads with the name of the columnist and a colon, and columns at The Guardian have a slight red tint in the background. The New York Times got rid of the obfuscating label of the “op-ed” in 2021, renaming the category “guest essays,” and has grounded its opinion section in a separate Facebook site.
I doubt that such steps are near enough if you want to assist the YouTube-generation in navigating your newspaper. To people younger than I am — I’m 43 — the visual jargon of print newspapers is as mysterious as TikTok is to my mother.
There are several paths to get us out of the mess we are in. We can be even more radical in labeling opinion. Rather than messing around with tiny boxes and italicized remarks at the page bottom, we could add glaring colors, blinking quotations marks, and video clips with today’s opinionator.
And then there are more radical solutions. We could spin off opinion content to sister sites with their own distinct brands, avoiding their intermingling with reported stories. A natural step on that path would be to remove paywalls around opinion pieces, which makes sense given that many contributors are unpaid and sharing opinions is an important part of participatory democracy itself.
Finally, news publishers could choose to get rid of opinion pieces altogether. Do I really need to have forceful claims about the meaning of current affairs mixed in with the reported journalism that drew me to The Guardian in the first place? Probably not.
A high-minded objection might be ringing in the head of many readers: Wait. We’re running a democracy here. We need qualified opinions as much as we need facts. To this I say: Look around. Opinion is everywhere today. Maybe disseminating it just isn’t the natural role of news publishers anymore. The ideal of unbiased journalism is a precious thing facing mounting threats. It is crazy that we willingly and with great purpose make it difficult to seek out.
Achieving such clear boundaries between interesting claims and well-reported journalism would, in the words of one Danish conspiracy theorist, really count.
Jakob Moll is the co-founder and former CEO of Zetland, a membership-driven digital newspaper in Denmark, and a 2022 Nieman fellow.