Commentary

The Rise Of Opinion 'News'

"Is traditional news dead and gone?" I'm hearing that question more frequently. During the past 12 months, AOL bought the Huffington Post, "unbiased" Fox topped CNN and MSNBC's profits, and Twitter continued to grow -- boosted by worldwide coverage and the toppling of insidious regimes. With the downsizing of print media and the rise of the blog, we've gotten used to reacting to opinion pieces instead of forming our opinions at the source. A lot like what we're doing right now.

Backtracking just a little bit, you might remember a time when you would read a piece online -- not on a blog, but on a breaking news site -- and wondered where the headlining story came from. A PR resource, perhaps? But ease of access to trending topics and Twitter hashtags can lead to and has led to rampant rumors, from death hoaxes (#ripnickiminaj, 2011) to merger news (AOL-Yahoo merger, 2010) and plain old rubbish. There's just so much stuff to filter that it's really no surprise that traditional news sources can pick up on a trending tag, locate an "insider" to comment, and report on something -- mistakenly -- that happened only in a fantasy cocktail of viral news and online pranksters.

That's the case with conjecture and the odd off-base source, but what about news sites that survive on a daily dose of drama? It's hard enough to follow the online trail of "who reported it first," and if there's a team dedicated to opinion-making and finger-pointing? The original truth is obscured with clever turns of phrase and selective linking.

Since everyone and their dog appear to be blogging, it's particularly difficult to ascertain what is what -- and from where. Editors, guest bloggers, staff members, and "experts" have blogs or online columns hosted by their publishers, and that adds to the fact-opinion blurring of boundaries. Let's call it the "Foxification of News," cheap and quick journalism, or the negative side of citizen blogging: the muddling of opinion and fact-only reporting is killing "news news."

Complaints about opinion-infused reporting often mention Fox. Its representatives claim that it is unbiased, but if it were, would Bill Shine, head of programming, say that Fox can "offer opinions not seen anywhere else"? As is the case with any successful business model, Fox's unique blend of fact and opinion inspired other news sources. Fox's revenue for 2010 is said to have reached profits of $800 million on revenue of $1.5 billion, more than MSNBC and CNN combined. When we noticed MSNBC getting more political, we knew why.

News is morphing, slowly but noticeably. Networks incorporate viral video and social media responses about anything from major sports games to natural disasters. While networks are highlighting YouTube videos and Twitter feeds more frequently, newspapers are continuing to fight for some share of the market. But is it really that much of a change, or simply a return to our roots?

Some suggest that opinion news might not be such a modern move after all. It's different, but the switch could be likened to 19th-century journalism described as "discursive" by The Economist. Back then, news was spread through personal connection and networking. The only problem? The social side of media used by average citizens to share news is now used as a marketing tool for huge networks. It's not the 19th century anymore, and the speed and sheer reach of the Internet, coupled with the ability to put anything live almost instantly, changes the way we access news, react to it, and, from a PR company's perspective, spread any kind of rumors, half-truths, or leading questions we want, at any time, and from anywhere.

PR support for businesses and professionals in the spotlight is more important with the domination of opinion news (and worldwide self-publishing, done gratis). And now that aggregated content is a constant online presence and even networks are spicing up their coverage with an opinionated edge, it takes an eagle eye to find skewed news and quiet a storm. Twitter hashtags can skyrocket in an hour; blog posts can be published in seconds. Navigating online PR minefields is challenging enough without dissecting nuances on formerly trusted sites.

We're looking at the possibility of heavily slanted news passed person-to-person -- a relic of the 19th century -- combined with the speed of a new era.

Is opinion news really "news," and should we mourn the death of unbiased reporting?

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1 comment about "The Rise Of Opinion 'News' ".
  1. Paul Friedman from Chicago Public Media , August 16, 2011 at 10:23 a.m.

    Fortunately, for those interested in substantial news and information, there is a wealth of content at a local NPR affliate, like WBEZ in Chicago and wbez.org.

    Because public media is content driven, not revenue driven like commercial media, it benefits the consumer by providing programming focused on issues rather than "sellability."

    Too often, those who would rue the demise of real news fail to recognize a media platform that presents a variety of voices to a growing audience.