Op-Ed, Anyone?

A new poll shows that Americans are generally uneasy about the news they are getting.

This in itself is not news — complaints about fake news and spin have filled the national conversation for years. People are understandably wary about the reliability of news coverage.

The new research, a collaboration between The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute, reveals among other things the following intriguing data: More than two-thirds of the public and journalists agree that the media should offer more information about its sources. Nearly half of the public said journalists should explain how their story was reported, and 42 percent of the journalists said the same thing.

Obviously there is suspicion that the facts are being made up or manipulated to serve someone’s undisclosed agenda. Or that they are merely opinions, not accurate accounts of things that happened or were said, but what the author thinks should be.

Some of this is due to a lack of understanding about the difference between fact and opinion, at least as presented in the news media. For example, the study found that approximately half the American public does not know the definition of the term “op-ed.”

For the record, op-ed, derives from the op-ed page of newspapers — which contains opinions (that’s the “op” part) written by either staff or outside contributors, and editorials (the “ed”), which express the publisher’s or editors’ own opinions. Originally it meant “opposite the editorial page” where outside opinions appeared in newspapers.

This kind of ignorance about news terminology leads to misunderstandings. A reader who expects to find factual reporting in an op-ed piece may be confused when he finds somebody’s opinions instead.

For those who grew up on electronic rather than print journalism, op-ed may seem an arcane etymology. This helps to account for the trust disparity between age groups: Most American adults aged 18 to 29 think the news is fairly inaccurate, while most above 30 feel it is fairly accurate. This could be due in part to the older group’s familiarity with news jargon. It also reflects a younger mentality battered by blogs where the distinction between fact and opinion is often blurred.

Some news organizations these days make a kind of sport of spotting fake news. They scrutinize the accuracy of politicians’ statements as fast as they can misstate them. Presumably, it has always been the job of journalists to ascertain facts and identify distortions for readers, but the current mood calls for special highlighting. It’s also exciting to join the pundits in catching major public figures in the games they play with the truth.

However, the longing for solid facts you can depend on, that you can take with you into the polling booth, so to speak, does not mean that opinion has no legitimate place. Only that it must be labeled as such.

Moreover, facts do not always speak for themselves. Someone has to put them in the context of events, give background on how those facts got there and how they fit in.

For example, it is legitimate to run a story on the Singapore Summit that contrasts Kim Jong Un’s vague promise to denuclearize versus the actual concession (suspending military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea). However, the judgment as to whether President Donald Trump did or did not err in signing the agreement, or does or does not deserve a Nobel Prize, should be left for the op-eds.

Honest reporters and editors continually struggle not to cross the line between reporting and editorializing. That is, giving the reader a reasonable perspective without loading it with their hidden — sometimes unconscious — agendas. It is not possible to draw a clear and unequivocal line that all agree to.

Despite the growing disconnect between the journalistic profession and the public, it is somewhat reassuring that researchers found that both journalists and the public say they want more fact-based reporting and less of the other stuff.

But do people really mean what they say? The journalists by and large try to give people what they want in order to increase their audience. The belief among many of the subscribers to mainstream media is that whatever noble intentions people profess, what they buy is sensationalism, and they tend to recognize and accept as fact that which supports their own presumptions and prejudices.

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, made the handy comparison to consumers. “You need to explain the mystery of how the meal was cooked,” he said. “We ought to take a cue from the way people go to the grocery store. Before they buy something, they need to learn what the ingredients are.”

But readers of news are not just consumers; they are citizens, whose need to know is not merely to satisfy their personal requirements but to decide on the issues and the candidates of the day. Democracy depends on informed voters. An electorate, not a consumerate.

As a consumer, one shops according to taste. Marketing experts deploy every tool at their disposal to predict and even create that taste in order to amplify profit.

Treating the citizen as a consumer has resulted in the phenomenon known as the “selling of the candidate.” The candidate is “sold” to the voter-consumer in the most attractive and palatable form, like a sweet breakfast cereal, not always conducive to a healthy body politic.

If everybody wants more facts, as they say they do, then both journalists and the public will have to shed, or at least scale back, the consumerist model.