Guidance: Online News Commentaries

There have been some questions in recent days about how we handle commentaries online.

Basically, the same principles that apply to on-air news commentaries from outside voices should apply to those commissioned for blogs and other digital platforms.

Let’s start this discussion with a bit of what the Ethics Handbook says about commentaries:

“In selecting commentaries from independent writers, we honor our commitments to impartiality and fairness by presenting our audience with a variety of voices, encompassing many sides of an issue. Our commentaries must also hew to other Guiding Principles, reflecting honesty, accuracy and transparency.”

More on fairness below.

On the air, commentators have always been identified as … well … commentators. Listeners have also heard at least brief bios to establish the commentators’ credentials.

Online, users should know immediately that what they’re seeing is an opinion piece and they should see biographical details about the writer or writers. There are different ways to do it, including assigning commentaries to a category called … wait for it … “commentary.” Then there are combinations of these approaches:

– The headline could begin with “Commentary:”

– An editor’s note at the top might simply state something like: “Social scientist Jane Doe has spent the last 10 years studying [insert the issue]. She has watched the recent events in [insert location]. Doe has some ideas about how to prevent it from happening again.”

– A bio box near the top of the page could spell out who the author is and why she has some expertise.

Now, on fairness.

This is obvious — the commentaries we put online must be fair. It’s also obvious that a writer needs to make well-reasoned, articulate points.

The right thing to do when a commentator is suggesting a person or institution is guilty of bad judgment, malfeasance or some serious misdeed, is to reflect the other person’s side of the story. On the air it’s often been a case of saying something like: “As we just heard, congressman John Doe said today that the $1 million he took from [insert name of shady character] was a gift, not a bribe. Jane Smith, a former federal prosecutor in Texas, doesn’t buy Doe’s explanation and predicts the Justice Department won’t either.”

Online, approaches can include a recap of what the other side says in response to our questions or (if we get a “no comment”) what that side has said in the past. The digital audience should be told what we find out. If the only thing we can say is “they had no comment,” that should be stated. There are several ways to present the information, including: As an editor’s note; as an inset box; or as a separate post that is linked to prominently.

Consider how a recent Goats and Soda commentary turned out. At the top of the post headlined “Taylor Swift Is Dreaming Of A Very White Africa” is a box that begins “this essay reflects the opinions of the authors, Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe.” Substantial bios of each author follow. Directly below them is a link to a post headlined “The Director Of The Taylor Swift Video Defends His Work.”

To recap: Commentaries must be fair; they must be labeled; the authors’ credentials need to be spelled out; and if the “other side” of the story needs to be told or restated or prominently linked to, we need to do one or more of those things for our Web users.

Side note: An arts critic is a type of commentator. But this guidance is not about critics’ reviews. They certainly shouldn’t be mean-spirited, but are not the same as commentaries on the news or people in the news.

(Memmos; Sept. 11, 2015)

September 11, 2015

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