Opinion-based journalism has deep roots in U.S. journalism. Early U.S. newspapers regularly featured opinionated political coverage that reflected the ideals and perspectives of the papers’ owners or the parties who subsidized their production. The resulting newspaper coverage was frequently partisan and subjective in a way that would seem foreign even today.
However, the relationship between journalism and objectivity grew closer over time. This was most notable in the early 20th century, when newspapers began to move toward a more neutral presentation of information in order to attract larger audiences. (By sticking to a middle ground and giving voice to multiple perspectives, journalists could more easily appeal to audiences supporting different sides of an issue. That, in turn, increased subscriptions and newspaper circulation.) Today, both objectivity and neutrality — and the image of an independent journalist providing “just the facts” — are idealized norms of U.S. journalism. Indeed, the most common complaint about journalism in the U.S. is that it is “too biased.”
This goal of gathering information objectively and presenting it neutrally has not led to the disappearance of opinion in U.S. journalism. Today, the two cohabitate, sometimes uncomfortably, across organizations and the industry at large. At more traditional journalistic outlets, they are sometimes physically separated, with clearly labeled “News” and “Editorial” or “Opinion” sections. Some outlets, especially newer, digitally native ones, pool opinion and objective reporting together into a single stream. (This is not simply an old-media versus new-media distinction, though. Some newer outlets do maintain a clear separation in order to appear more professional by adhering to the traditional norms.) Additionally, some U.S. outlets reject the objectivity and neutrality norms altogether, believing that the best journalism is subjective.
Even as U.S. journalism moved toward the norm of objectivity, editors and publishers still saw an important role for subjective opinion pieces. They were vehicles through which opinion journalists, experts, and members of the community could weigh in on public issues and offer social commentary. Indeed, opinion-based journalism and editorial content have long been seen as central to the journalistic role conception of providing a public forum for vigorous debate. This remains the case today.
There are several types of opinion-based forms of journalism. The most common ones are editorials, op-eds, and columns. Another type of journalism that is sometimes associated with opinion-journalism is the news analysis.
An editorial is an opinion piece written to persuade audiences to adopt a specific perspective or take a specific action in response to an issue. For example, an editorial about a U.S. Presidential election might encourage audiences to vote for a particular candidate, or even just simply to vote. Editorials present a series of key points intended to advance an overarching argument. Although editorials are intentionally subjective, they often include reported and verified facts that make a case for their argument, such as polling data and other statistics that indicate the favorability of the position the editorial writer is arguing for. This factual basis is sometimes drawn from the editorial writer’s original reporting, but it is more often drawn from information first unearthed through the outlet’s objective news coverage.
Although editorials are often written by a single author, the decision about which side of an issue an outlet will favor in its editorial coverage is a group decision. Outlets that publish editorials usually feature an editorial board comprised mostly of different section editors and managers, who vote on an issue before the editorial is assigned to a board member for writing. When the editorial is published, it comes to represent the collective perspective of a outlet’s editorial board — and through them, of the outlet itself. Editorials are usually published anonymously (without a byline) to maintain the perception that they represent the views of the editorial branch of the outlet rather than an individual journalist or editor. In the case of a newspaper or online news site, editorials usually appear on the Editorial Page or in the Opinion section of the publication. This separation is intended to make clear to readers that this content is opinion-based and should not be confused with the reported, fact-based content that appears elsewhere in the news product.
The term “op-ed” is short for “opposite of the editorial page.” Like an editorial, an op-ed is a subjective opinion piece produced for the purpose of persuading its audiences to adopt a point of view or action in response to a topic for which there are multiple sides. Unlike an editorial, an op-ed generally represents the opposite side of an issue than what the editorial already took. For example, an op-ed may contend that a climate change bill supported by outlet in an editorial is too costly and burdensome to businesses. Additionally, opposing op-eds may be featured in instances where the organization has not published an editorial.
Op-eds are generally written by a freelance or guest writer who is not employed by or associated with the outlet. This includes elected officials, political candidates, academics, and public intellectuals. They are distinguished as such through their bylines, which clearly identify the author and their affiliation.
Columns are opinion-based pieces that are broader in nature than either editorials or op-eds. While they are written from the author’s point of view, and often include first-person language, they are not limited to advocating for a particular action or point of view. Columns can tackle any number of subjects through a variety of different lenses, as long as they present a personal experience or perspective related to the topic they cover. A columnist could, for example, share their experience as a soldier abroad, advocate for the adoption of gender-inclusive bathrooms, tell a story about adopting their first dog, or relate any number of first-person experiences or opinions.
Journalistic outlets sometimes employ recurring columnists dedicated to specific beats, such as film criticism, sports, fashion, and domestic advice. They may also employ a columnist who opines or reflects on a different topic each week. For example, such a columnist might relay their thoughts on legalizing a drug one week and their experience helping their eldest child move in to a college the next.
Additionally, outlets may feature editorial cartoons by a professional cartoonist (or license cartoons from different cartoonists). Editorial cartoons have proven to be particularly influential at different points in U.S. history, often by lampooning powerful individuals and capturing public sentiment in a humorous but striking manner. Several journalistic outlets also regularly reserve space for user-generated opinion content, such as letters to the editor (or, more recently, tweets and posts from audience members).
News analyses are pieces of journalism that aim to place news events or developments (e.g., the proposal of major legislation by a political party) within a broader context. Rather than focusing on the latest details about the event or development, the primary objective of these pieces is to situate the event or development within a broader history or trend. Put another way, news analyses aim to combat information overload by synthesizing the existing coverage and describing how it fits into a bigger puzzle. This involves describing relevant background, historical details, and both supporting and contradicting factual information.
News analyses are typically written by journalists (especially beat reporters), and not traditional opinion writers. While these pieces are not intended to convey the author’s explicit opinions, the act of synthesizing and contextualizing the information involves a higher degree of interpretation than so-called ‘straight’ news stories. As such, news analyses are often clearly labeled as analyses, though they may appear alongside typical news stories (and not on dedicated opinion sections).
Despite its modern relationship with objectivity and neutrality, U.S. journalism has maintained a role for subjective opinion pieces. Namely, they’re vehicles through which opinion journalists, experts, and members of the community can weigh in on a public issue.
Opinion journalism includes editorials, op-eds, and columns, as well as editorial cartoons and user-generated opinion pieces like letters to the editor. Such journalism usually aims to persuade readers (though they must still draw upon a factual foundation to be opinion journalism). Additionally, journalists may produce news analyses that aim to contextualize more episodic news stories.
Opinion pieces usually appear in the Editorial Page or Opinion section of a news product. This separation is intended to make clear to readers that this content is opinion-based and should not be confused with the reported, fact-based content that appears elsewhere in the product.