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Avoid confusion, save your news brand: Dateline approach to flagging commentary

by: Amy Gahran |

August 02, 2011

Avoid confusion, save your news brand: Dateline approach to flagging commentary

In a world of distributed digital publishing and social media, many people are justifiably concerned about telling the difference between fact-based reporting and speculative opinion. One way to avoid this kind of confusion is to clearly label commentary—from within the story itself, not just in the contextual design elements of the pages on your news organization’s web site.

Here’s an example of syndication that can breed confusion. This problem might be fixed with an old tool: the dateline…

By Amy Gahran

Last week, a friend tweeted to share this news story: Forbes: New Nasa Data on Global Warming.

Coincidentally saw this tweet just after I’d finished writing a post for CNN.com about what science says about potential health risks from cell phone emissions. So I was in the mood to check out a story about another controversial science-related topic.

I followed my friend’s link and saw this Yahoo News page:

Yahoo News commentary
Yahoo News commentary

Yahoo News syndications presents Forbes commentary as reported news. Click image to see larger version.

Wow, I thought—would Forbes really run a headline like “New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism” on a reported story?

Actually, no, Forbes did not.

That headline appeared on an op-ed (not a reported story) that Forbes published. The piece was penned by James Taylor, senior fellow for environment policy at The Heartland Institute—a conservative think tank staunchly opposed to policies aimed at curbing climate change.

Here’s how that story looked on Forbes.com, where it was originally published:

Forbes Commentary
Forbes Commentary

Original layout on Forbes.com of this commentary. Click image to see larger version.

Notice the gray label just under the author’s byline? The one that says “Endpoint Analysis?” That’s one way that Forbes signals that the content on a page is an commentary, rather than a reported story. To someone visiting Forbes.com, that’s probably a good enough hint that what follows is an opinion piece, not reporting.

...But just in case you missed that clue, Forbes.com also displays (in tiny gray text, between the author’s photo and the byline, “OP/ED.”

Unfortunately, those crucial bits of context apparently exist only as a design elements on Forbes.com’s page template. So they didn’t transfer through when this story was syndicated—as so much news content is—to Yahoo News.

Yahoo News made almost no effort to distinguish that this article was a commentary. It was listed in the “business” section of Yahoo News; then within that category it was oddly categorized as a “press release”—something that’s difficult to visually distinguish given how colors are used in the Yahoo News site’s design.

However, in my opinion making this important distinction was not the responsibility of Yahoo News. Forbes could have—and probably should have—cleared this up right away, in the text of the article.

For instance, Forbes could have begun the lede this way:

“COMMENTARY: NASA satellite data from the years 2000 through 2011 show…”

Functionally, this approach is no different from how news stories used to (and many still do) begin with a traditional dateline, like “WASHINGTON (AP)—In a close vote today, the House approved…”

The whole point of a dateline is context, especially in a syndication situation. It assumes that readers will want to know—right away—where a story came from in order to help understand and gauge the content.

Traditional datelines assume that “where” and “which news org” are the most useful pieces of context for readers. But increasingly, “Is this fact or opinion?” is another crucial question that news organizations should answer up front.

Whether or not your news organization syndicates its content, it’s important to understand that your content—especially your headlines and ledes—will be presented beyond the context of your site. This happens through search engines, social media, feed readers, curation tools, aggregators and other means.

Secondary venues typically will display the headline, byline, and body of your content (at least the lede)—but probably nothing else from your site. Also, they may or may not categorize your content the way you would.

They probably will clearly show that they syndicated content came from you—which means the reputation of your news brand is at stake in syndication venues. So if it’s important at your news organization to distinguish between your fact-based reporting and opinion pieces (especially those written by outside contributors, and especially on hot-button topics), it’s safer to clarify this distinction, dateline style.

The best part of the dateline approach to flagging commentary is that you don’t need to tweak your content management system to make it happen. All it takes is typing in an extra bit of text, at the top of the story’s body content.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Amy Gahran, 08/02/11 at 10:10 am

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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