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Today's trust tip: Explain who writes an editorial (and who doesn't)

Hi there. Joy here.

When President Trump launched a Twitter attack against Baltimore last month, The opinion staff at The Baltimore Sun clapped back, with an editorial headlined "Better to have a few rats than to be one."

But, did people understand the distinction of where the views and message in the editorial came from? We're not so sure, and here's why.

The editorial was commonly discussed as coming from the newspaper overall. "Baltimore Sun responds to Trump" was the language used in this tweet from CNN's Jim Acosta, and he was far from alone in using that description. 

But, it wasn't the newspaper that responded to President Trump, it was an editorial writer, Peter Jensen. And according to The Washington Post, the editorial was a talker. It drove record traffic and a spike in new subscriptions.

Savvy news consumers might understand that the voice of the paper's editorial board does not influence the reporting staff, but for most news consumers that differentiation may be hard to make. Consider these two factors:

  • The Baltimore Sun's website uses common but confusing terminology when it describes the newsroom's journalists as "editorial staff" on their "Contact" page
  • There are plenty of examples of blurry lines between news and opinion that people consume on a daily basis. Some community newspapers have news staff contributing to editorials. Some reporters also write columns. Some anchors share their own perspectives on-air. 
Because of this, users do not necessarily differentiate the editorial writer's opinion from how a daily reporter covers city council, an election or the president. It's our job to explain it to them. And it doesn't have to be complicated.

Consider this editorial in the New York Times. It carries an "Opinion" label, and the byline credits "The Editorial Board." Both of those are fairly common approaches (though sadly not at all universal). But it goes further:
  1. It includes a note under the byline explaining that the Editorial Board is separate from the newsroom.  
  2. The byline links to a longer description of the makeup of the board, along with bios of the staff. 
Adding a descriptive field to your website's byline structure might not be an easy option for you. But the idea behind it is not complicated. And it could have a great impact. 

TRY THIS: Write one- to two-sentence descriptions of each type of content your newsroom produces. Think about editorials, letters to the editor, columns, op-eds, reviews, and pieces labeled as analysis or perspective. Then look at the messages you're sending (or not sending about each). Can a column be from either a staff member or a community member? Is an analysis more like a deep reporting piece or more like a column? Once you've agreed on your descriptions, start putting them in italics at the top of every story that carries one of these labels. 

— Joy Mayer, Trusting News director

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Trusting News aims to demystify trust in news and empower journalists to take responsibility for actively demonstrating credibility and earning trust. It is a project of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute

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