By Mark Glassman February 28, 2014
That’s a pretty strong indictment, but it’s the kind of remark you see a dozen times an hour if you read investment blog comments or financial tweets. It says shares of Acme Widget are doomed because the company is being run by an incompetent – a nincompoop, even – and it recommends a change. It just might trigger a media firestorm. But is it newsworthy?
Every minute of every day, someone somewhere is issuing an opinion about something. The President says Congress is obstinate. An economist says the economy is doomed. A football player says another football player is bad at football. Countless individuals – famous and unknown – are dishing out opinions that may be provocative, perceptive, witty, or revelatory – or inaccurate, misleading, self-serving, or just plain stupid.
It’s the journalist’s job to sort through the world’s opinions and find the ones worth sharing and contextualizing – the ones that are worth stories. This is not an easy task, particularly in the age of social media, but it’s an important one. If we overlook or omit opinions that are newsworthy, we risk ignoring an important voice, not to mention looking stupid when the Internet explodes. If we repeat opinions that aren’t newsworthy, we risk giving them a weight and an audience they don’t deserve, not to mention looking stupid when the Internet explodes.
For business journalists, there’s often money at stake. Some readers and viewers make investment decisions based on what they read and hear, and they are more likely to be swayed by a CFO’s opinion or an analyst’s take if it’s reported by a news organization they trust.
So how do we determine which opinions are worth reporting and which are best left in the dark? There are a few questions journalists can ask themselves that are helpful in assessing not only whether to publish the opinion, but also how to talk about it and contextualize it for readers if they do.
Wild opinions can make for provocative headlines, but if they can’t be supported or explained they are rarely of service to readers. For example, a stock analyst who says that shares of Apple will double by the end of the quarter could make for a fascinating story, but not if he can’t make a compelling case with sound reasoning and evidence. Why will the stock skyrocket? What is everyone else missing about the company?
It’s best to vet opinions and publish what you find to provide some context, or possible some background. Stories that merely parrot unsupported claims leave smart readers dismissive and questioning the publication’s credibility.
An opinion can be newsworthy if it represents a new take on an important issue. If President Obama were to say at a factory in Iowa that the manufactures should be mindful of creating work environments with more age diversity, we would sit up and take notice. We might begin writing a news item and calling sources for comment. On the other hand, if he were to say instead that the rich should be required to pay their “fair share” in taxes, we would unlikely to do anything: The President’s stance on tax progressivity is widely known, and so are the ideas behind it. Readers don’t need to see it again merely because he repeated it.
An opinion can be worth a story if it represents a reversal. Let’s go back to the President and taxes for a second. If he were to stand in the Rose Garden and tell the nation that, upon further review, the rich should not have to pay their “fair share” because they contribute to economic growth in other ways, he would be pulling a 180. A reporter couldn’t publish that story quickly enough. In a case like that, the backtracking itself can be newsworthy.
Notoriety is not tantamount to credibility. A high-profile person’s opinion is not necessarily newsworthy if it’s outside his or her area of expertise.
Say that a notable hedge fund manager has an enviable track record for picking stocks, not to mention a master’s degree in economics. When he gives advice about the market or the economy, journalists jump at the chance to record and publish what he says. However, if he were to assert that there is corruption at the Environmental Protection Agency, we’d all want to take a moment before calling our editors. Does a fund manager’s reputation as a savvy investor give him the credibility to make serious claims about the EPA? Probably not without some evidence. However, if a former head of the agency came forward to disclose corruption, we might be likely to trust his take because he knows its inner workings and probably retains some connections. His identity is important to his claim.
Even the most reasonable, well-articulated opinions aren’t always newsworthy. When they come from a random person, as The Onion points out in many of its “Area Man” stories, they can leave readers wondering why they should care. For an opinion to really matter, the person issuing it should be in a position act. That’s why journalists mine the Sunday talk shows for sound bites from politicians. Those sound bites could hint at a new policy or a shift in a platform.
Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement that the Venezuelan government’s use of force against political protestors had become “unacceptable.” This opinion matters because Mr. Kerry wields considerable diplomatic influence.
If an opinion is newsworthy, it typically speaks for itself. That’s why it’s important to be skeptical of people who employ hyperbole, profanity or inflammatory language to make their point.
In January, the venture capitalist Tom Perkins wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal, in which he compared what he described as “a rising tide of hatred” toward the wealthy to the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews in the run-up to the Holocaust. Mr. Perkins’s letter triggered strong reactions because, in addition to being ridiculous on its face, his analogy was at best insensitive and, to many people, offensive. So was it newsworthy?
The notion that the wealthy are vilified is hardly new, and Mr. Perkins’s position a venture capitalist does not suggest a particularly informed perspective on societal imbalances as much as a biased one. He simply used a wildly inappropriate comparison to make a familiar, but not unexpected point. In similar cases, the 2001 terrorist attacks are often invoked to bolster weak or stale ideas.
Journalists should be mindful of comparisons like these because repeating them rarely adds to the discourse. More often, they cheapen the debate and create more controversy than discovery.
Still, in this particular case, an argument could be made for covering Perkins’s opinion – not for its merits, but for broader revelation that some of the wealthiest Americans are extremely sensitive about discussions of income inequality. Here, the responsible journalistic approach would have been to write a broader story about that sentiment, one that drew on a variety of voices and perhaps used Perkins’s letter as a lede. A story like that is liable to make the cover a well-respected magazine. A story that merely glares at Perkins’s comments in stunned disbelief is just click bait.
Executives and politicians have their own public relations machines, but they often attempt to use journalists to deliver their messages because news organizations can confer some credibility. This is most obvious during election season, when public statements can become veiled potshots at opposing candidates, which can be fun to read but are rarely newsworthy. Journalists must assess whether reporting an opinion is of greater service to their readers or the person or business making the statement.
Mark Glassman (MS, 2005), is a Data Visualization Producer at Bloomberg, and a former teaching assistant at the Columbia Journalism School.
This entry was posted on Friday, February 28th, 2014 at 4:36 pm. It is filed under Featured, Skills and Tradecraft and tagged with journalism ethics, online opinions, provocative headlines. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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