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.
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.