Katharine Riggs March 4, 2021 | 03:56:40

Facts vs. Fluff: Are Opinion Pieces Dead?

In today’s oversaturated media and content world, the sheer amount of available news can be overwhelming, both for PR teams who navigate media needs and for those who consume the news. In fact, many consumers want to cut through the fluff and just get to the facts.

One way of cutting that “fluff” is by getting rid of opinion articles like op-eds and so-called “thought pieces.” Some major publications have already begun doing so. In January 2021, Axios announced it would discontinue its op-ed section entirely. 

But, is this really the right course of action? There are many factors to consider. 

The negatives of opinion: misinformation and overkill 

Not only are there too many news outlets and platforms, but there’s an overabundance of what is considered news. But what really constitutes news anymore? Is a celebrity’s Tweet about the presidential election really considered news? Of course it depends on the tweet, but you could argue both sides of that one. 

Today, many use Twitter and even TikTok to stay up-to-date and, while it’s great that social media can instantly serve up timely news, there are downsides to social platforms as news sources. The stories shared are often shaded with opinion and may not be factual or credible. Worse, many people never get beyond the headline and may come away with a distorted impression of the story.

Opinion pieces that aren’t labeled as such may leave a false impression that they’re factual rather than based on the point of view of a single writer or group. There’s also the matter of media literacy among news consumers. A recent Pew study that measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five opinion statements and five factual ones found that many Americans have trouble doing so. While a majority correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each group, nearly a quarter judged all or most them inaccurately. There was a wide variation in media literacy, with key factors being political awareness, digital media savvy, and overall trust in the news media.

Perspective matters 

Despite some potential for confusion, opinion pieces are a tool for creating civil, open dialogue. The thoughts and opinions of others can add “color,” or perspective, to any issue, particularly those that are complicated or part of an emerging trend. When written well, and by a credible and knowledgeable source, a thought-provoking op-ed piece can open the door to discussions with those of opposing points of view. They can persuade, encourage action, and effect change. 

In fact, a 2018 study by Yale University discovered that op-ed pieces in newspapers do, in fact, change minds. Researchers found that op-ed pieces had large and long-lasting effects on views among both the general public and policy experts. The study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, also found that “Democrats and Republicans altered their views in the direction of the op-ed piece in roughly equal measure.” Alexander Coppock, assistant professor of political science at Yale and the study’s lead author, explained the results of the study by saying, “People read an argument and were persuaded by it. It’s that simple.” 

Opinions stir emotion

An op-ed is also particularly useful for dispelling common misperceptions around a topic or issue. It doesn’t have to be about foreign policy or government regulation, either. 2020 was a rough year for us all. After the pandemic, many in New York City fled to the suburbs, while others left to find more space or warmer weather. Some began saying the city was “dead” or referred to New York as a “ghost town.” In August 2020, an op-ed piece by Jerry Seinfeld for The New York Times circulated on social media news feeds everywhere. The title? “So You Think New York Is ‘Dead.’”

In it Seinfeld reminds everyone of the city’s many previous struggles and explains why we should have faith in its resiliency. His words were exactly the kind of encouragement that many needed to hear at the time. 

On a more serious note, the 2019 Washington Post op-ed piece, “The shooting at my school will be yesterday’s news. And nothing will come of it,” by Gina Painter, a teacher at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, was a deeply emotional and eye-opening piece written in response to her school joining the long list of US school shootings. Painter’s heartfelt plea for stricter gun laws is not only heard, but felt in the piece. 

It’s most important to know the facts of a story first, but facts don’t always move people. Sometimes, emotions do. Hearing about someone’s personal experiences or opinion helps readers better grasp the issue and leaves a much more lasting impact. 

The Importance of thought leadership  

There are key differences to consider when consuming stories that are based on hard facts and opinion-based pieces. Both can be vital to telling a story, but it’s important to be able to distinguish between the two, so you know what you’re getting. 

Thought leadership is still crucial in today’s media landscape. While news tells us a story, credible opinion pieces offer more perspective and can help shape the story into something more tangible or compelling. 

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