Editorial vs. Article — Can You Tell the Difference?

Today in class, students were supposed to bring an editorial from a newspaper. More than half the students didn’t know what an editorial was or where to find it. What kind of education system do we have in this state? When students can’t tell the difference between an editorial and a news article, I get scared. I’m not talking about the more sophisticated position that questions the difference between information and persuasion, either: “there’s no such thing as information; all information is perspectival.” The students simply didn’t know the kinds of writing in a newspaper. It means that our educational system is not teaching students the basic literacy skills of democracy.

Today was a good day, though, because the students understood Toulmin’s model for breaking down arguments. That was exciting.

UPDATE 12-20-12

Since we are approaching the end of the world, and since I keep getting comments asking me to “answer the damn question,” I decided to do so. First, however, I must say how frustrated I am about it. By the time students reach college, they should know the difference between a news article and an editorial. Since the original blog entry was posted four years ago, what constitutes news has eroded into a vast echo chamber of spin, so my opening question has become problematic. No one can tell the difference anymore because the difference is evaporating. Indeed, in all fairness, it’s possible some youngster stumbled onto my blog looking for an honest answer to the question. Lucky me, I have a reader!

The easy, straightforward answer is that an editorial is found in the editorial section of the newspaper, be it a hard copy or digital version. An editorial is an opinion, openly expressed as such. Even though the writer might not use first person writing, the author’s voice is very clearly present. A news article is found in the news section, and there are various kinds of news sections: international, local, news of the town, business news. Ideally, news articles are unbiased and objective. They present facts or report other people’s opinions, such as those of witnesses or experts.  In general, a news article is supposed to be neutral and an editorial is supposed to be opinionated.

There is a specific type of article called an “analysis” that interprets information. This kind of writing goes a step beyond simple reporting because it presents an opinion about conclusions drawn from the information the reporter gathered. News analysis articles aren’t just reporting; they are analyzing and offering conclusions. Usually, though, they include substantial support from experts and they give more than one opinion in the article. So, it’s a step in between the biased tone of an editorial and the neutral tone of a news article.

Today, though, we have all sorts of variations because we have all sorts of “new media.” Blogs where anyone can say anything, televisions shows that vary from the traditional “evening news,” and so forth all challenge the traditional, simple reporting style of news and open up the door for everyone, including myself, to say whatever and to whatever audience will bother to listen.

Last, we all know that pointing out something to someone, and showing that something exists where it might not have been noticed before, is a form of bias or persuasion. That’s sometimes called “agenda setting.” By virtue of agenda setting alone, reporting in and of itself is never truly neutral or unbiased, and the distinction is actually fictional. But, like I said in my first post, you can’t get to that argument until you understand the distinction in the first place.

It frustrates me that students (everyone, really) don’t get the difference between facts and opinions. It is part of the reason why no one knows or understands what’s going on in the world anymore. I say this not because I think my students are stupid, or because I think my students don’t care. I say this because we have been trained culturally now to ignore the difference.

I don’t care what form we use to get our facts and opinions as long as we can differentiate between the two. Historically, we kept things clear for a long time when we separated newspapers into articles and editorials. If newspapers disappear, fine, but the disappearance of our ability to separate fact and opinion is dangerous.

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  13 comments for “Editorial vs. Article — Can You Tell the Difference?

  1. Emily
    July 11, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Please answer the question. What is the difference?

  2. ~LS~
    July 11, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    I recognize that the difference between an article and an editorial can open up a can of deconstructive worms, but that’s not the problem I’m complaining about. I’d welcome that sort of discussion from my students. I’m talking about the basic difference between the news section and the editorial section of the newspaper. This is an artificial distinction fraught with politics to be sure, but my students lacked the basic literacy required to “pick an editorial/letter to the editor/opinion piece from the editorial section of the newspaper.” Some of my students didn’t even know what that meant or how to do that.

  3. Meredith
    August 15, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Ya… I was really hoping that by clicking on this the question would be answered in addition to addressing the larger issue at hand. I suppose things like this are a perfect example of the problem at hand that is being addressed. Ironic.

    • ~LS~
      August 21, 2012 at 12:57 pm

      Meredith, perhaps when the semester settles down, I will write something about how to do this in class. It is something I teach every semester. I have to teach it this semester. Collecting my thoughts in writing will be helpful.

      • spill
        December 20, 2012 at 9:41 pm

        LS you sound like the type of teacher I would hate. You must be a terrible teacher. And why don’t you just answer the damn question?

        • ~LS~
          December 20, 2012 at 10:17 pm

          Ok ok.

  4. Stephanie
    April 26, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    “What kind of education system do we have in this state? When students can’t tell the difference between an editorial and a news article, I get really scared”

    Isn’t it your job to teach them the difference? You are a teacher right? The students in your class are paying a lot of money to learn these things… And it’s your job to teach them. Now I’m scared!

    • ~LS~
      April 27, 2013 at 10:08 pm

      Stephanie, you are right. Students pay to learn in my class, and it is my job to teach them. If students come to my class unprepared or under-prepared by their education, then I am obligated to catch them up, which I do. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, accept it, or be uncritical of it. By the time someone graduates from high school, they should be able to read and understand a newspaper. It’s that simple. I am not upset with my students for not knowing. I am upset with our educational system for not teaching them, and I am upset with “the press” for having eroded so much that news and entertainment are indistinguishable.

      As an aside, just because I ranted about the problem here on my blog doesn’t mean I left the question unaddressed in my class.

  5. c.
    January 7, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    I’m a teacher and have worked at the middle school and high school level. My students say that I’m their favorite teacher, they say I inspire them, and I see enormous growth from one end of the year to the other in each of them. I’ve mostly been able to teach really good curicular materials, as well.

    That said, I see a change in what students retain and for how long. The high school teachers all complain about the skills of students coming out of middle school. The middle school teachers complain about students coming up from elementary.

    What might come closer to the truth than “their earlier education was awful” is this:

    Until and unless students actually are internally driven and curious and find their own active brains to be fun and interesting, until and unless that happens, naught else really matters. Sometimes a teacher can facilitate that happening. Sometimes, a whole lot of times, it isn’t about the eductation being offered–it is about the student themselves.

    Some awaken to school and somee do not.

    Which leads to a bigger question, while we really do want every voter to be well-informed, is it really true that every capable and working adult needs to know all that they try to process in school?

    Knowing the difference (as a defined type of definition) between editorial and article isn’t relevant. Neither are questions really that delve into the degree or lack thereof of bias in every and all texts. End of day, what really matters, I believe, is if people can ask questions, be skeptical, and in spite of all their critical metacognitive thinking, still awaken each day with vim, vigor and HOPE.

    The two questions: the difference between the texts and the quality of education are not, I think, entirely useful. Though they are fun.

    • ~LS~
      January 8, 2014 at 1:03 am

      Point taken.

  6. Debra Q
    November 16, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    I am a first time college student at 58 yrs old. I wasn’t able to attend when I was younger since my father didn’t believe in higher education for women. After my own daughter graduated, I decided to try and fulfill my life long dream. I’m in developmental classes, including a writing class. We were assigned essays, one an editorial and one an analysis. I had a terrible time understanding the difference. Your article came up after I Google’d my question. It certainly helped me and I wanted to take a minute to thank you for writing it. I think my assignments are better because of it. Thank you, Debra Quenqua.

    • Laura
      November 18, 2014 at 8:48 pm

      Thank you, Debra. Best of luck in your studies.

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