One possible explanation for declining trust in news organizations is blurry lines between news and opinion. If someone doesn’t like a commentator’s stance on particular issues, that could color how they look at everything else that news organization does. Plus, research by API shows that people are finding it difficult to tell the difference between news and opinion: 32% of Americans find it difficult to distinguish news from opinion in the media.

Now comes a new analysis by the Duke Reporters’ Lab finding that news organizations employ inconsistent terminology and labeling when it comes to news, opinion and analysis. That inconsistency creates confusion for readers, the Reporters’ Lab says.

The good news is, this problem is really an opportunity. With just a bit of thoughtfulness and some design tweaks, a news organization can use better labeling of news and opinion to make big strides in readers’ trust and understanding of its work.

We talked to Duke Reporters’ Lab project manager Rebecca Iannucci about the findings of the analysis, what news organizations can do to label stories better, and how trust and article labeling are related.

Rebecca Iannucci

How did you conduct the analysis, and what were your most important findings?

We wanted to see what readers see, so we looked at the labeling systems of 49 news publications — 25 local newspapers and 24 national news and opinion websites. In our database, students noted as much information as possible about the labels they encountered. Did a label exist for that article? What did it say? Did the label clearly communicate what type of article they were reading? How easy was it to locate the label?

It’s important to note that, for the purposes of our study, we were looking for labels of article type (e.g. editorial, review, analysis) and not article section (opinion, entertainment, news).

The biggest takeaway: A majority of news publications are not doing enough to label their content. Of the 49 publications we studied, only 20 of them — about 41 percent — labeled article type at least once, in at least one section of their website. But of those 20 that included labels, 16 of them (80 percent) only featured labels in their opinion section, such as editorial, commentary, column/columnist and letters. Even within those opinion sections, label consistency was poor, and labels were difficult to locate in many cases.

Were there any news organizations in your analysis that could serve as a good example of labeling stories?

The Washington Post. They’re doing the best job with clear, consistent labeling. The four labels they employ are opinion, analysis, perspective and review. When users hover their cursors over a label, a small box appears with a definition of that label. In our study, we didn’t encounter any other publications that use labels with the same level of clarity, frequency and consistency across all sections of the newspaper.

One shortcoming: The Post does not label news stories. Rather, the absence of a news label is supposed to indicate to readers that they’re reading a news piece. But our student researchers found that confusing. We think Post readers would appreciate the consistency if news articles were also labeled.

Among the news organizations that were labeling their stories, what could they have been doing to make the distinction between news and opinion clearer?

First, I think there’s a lesson to be learned from The Washington Post’s technique, which is that news organizations should label news content and opinion content as such. There’s a very fragile trust in the media right now, and news publications can improve that trust by telling people what kind of journalism they are reading. Labeling opinion content but not news content, or vice versa, opens the door for consumers to misinterpret what they’re reading.

There’s a very fragile trust in the media right now, and news publications can improve that trust by telling people what kind of journalism they are reading.

Second, news organizations could try some aesthetic distinctions between news and opinion content to communicate the difference. Make the label for opinion a different color. Make it bold. Put “Opinion” at the start of the headline. News organizations should give their readers a road map to their content, instead of asking readers to interpret everything on their own.

What’s the relationship between labeling news and opinion and readers’ trust in news? Do you think this inconsistent labeling lead to lower levels of trust?

One of the biggest criticisms of the media — especially in the last year — is that journalists are biased. That’s because readers can click on an opinion column from a local newspaper without any indication that it’s an opinion piece. That’s why labeling is so crucial.

Sally Kohn, a political commentator for CNN, wrote about this issue in a column for USA Today, saying, “When I appear on CNN, where I’m a paid commentator, there’s no sign that flashes above my head informing viewers that I’m offering opinions — and that there’s an important difference between me and… the CNN reporters who come before or after [me] on a show and describe the facts of the news as it’s unfolding. This difference may seem obvious to some people. It’s not obvious to everyone. And that’s a problem.”

For a news organization that’s trying to label its stories better, what does your analysis suggest they should prioritize?

Label the type, not the section. Readers can tell, fairly easily, that they are in the entertainment section or sports section of a publication.

But what’s more important for a reader is knowing what type of article they are reading. Is the entertainment story they just clicked on a news story, or a review? Is that sports story actually an analysis piece?

What kinds of research should news organizations conduct with their readers to develop a better labeling system?

Go straight to the source. Conduct focus groups and surveys to ask readers about the most effective labels. When given an unlabeled story, can a reader identify what type of article it is? When given a labeled story, can a reader easily point out the label and define what it means?

As more content is available outside of news organizations’ own websites, what can news organizations do to make the distinction between news and opinion clearer on social media and other platforms?

Social media strategies don’t need to be complex when it comes to labeling, but they do need to be enforced across Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. Regardless of where an article is getting promoted, journalists need to make sure the label for that content is displayed somehow. Most readers are directed to a news publication via its social media channels, so it’s crucial that the labels appear on those platforms, and not just on the publication’s website.

With just a bit of thoughtfulness and some design tweaks, a news organization can use better labeling of news and opinion to make big strides in readers’ trust and understanding of its work.

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