Not for me a distinction between opinions and reportage

Featured image credit: Schmid-Reportagen/pixabay.

(Note: There’s some text beyond the postscript at the bottom.)

A recent discussion with some of my peers alerted me to a need I’ve either been deaf to or just don’t buy: readers, at least some of them, prefer to be presented with a clear distinction between opinion and reported pieces on a news website. Now, I’m not sure how anyone can draw a clear line between these two kinds of pieces. Even in a news report, there is a subjective choice being made by the reporter in her choice of interviewees, sources, topics, etc. And in many areas of media coverage – both geographically (India, US, Europe, etc.) and topically (politics, finance, science, etc.) – these choices have to be made very carefully because even a small misstep can land the report on the wrong side of the political spectrum. You, its author, will at least be branded “insensitive” etc.

Hell, even when I’m writing about topological phases of matter, I consider it a matter of opinion when I choose to speak about the Indian context or not, when I choose to highlight practical applications or not.

To me, everything is contested, to the point that there no longer seems to be any point in making a distinction between opinion and reportage if my opinion is going to be just my voice in my piece and my reportage is going to be just my choice of voices in my piece. A more important, and more meaningful, declaration to make would be that of my own PoV. That is, for me to tell the reader that I, Vasudevan Mukunth, am on the political Left more than half the time, that I believe we shouldn’t always talk about the applications of research because I think that debases the ‘wonder’ and ‘curiosity’ aspects of science+, that in fact I don’t think there is an opinion-neutral position when it comes to covering certain topics, e.g. GM foods, etc.

By not making a distinction between opinion and reportage, I believe the reader will also be forced to consider each piece more seriously. Instead of declaring upfront that a following piece is an oped, it would be better to follow certain rules of writing that allow an uninitiated reader to separate facts from opinions. I say this based on two assumptions, the second more important than the first:

  1. Facts are immutable
  2. The reader should know better

By the latter, I mean that the reader should question everything she reads, learn only to trust a few well-defined sources, and understand overall that the presumption of there being a single truth regarding anything in this world is a myth. This is true even in science – or should I say more so in science, thanks to there being more at stake when scientists promise a single truth to an audience that usually doesn’t know better. To me, the act of conveying the news stopped being stripped of opinions at least three years ago. And to others – wanting to have a caution of some sort that a piece contains opinions is in some sense a confession that you think news reports are otherwise not opinionated. That’s disappointing.

TL;DR: A label like ‘opinion’ is only a horse-blinder.

+In a developed nation with higher levels of social security, spending on blue sky research is, from the vantage point of a populist, more “forgivable” than it is to her counterpart in a developing nation, where the level of social security is lower. Would this not affect how we choose to portray the purpose of scientific research in the mainstream media?

Update (three hours later):

A counterpoint, courtesy myself: Isn’t there some value in targeting a reader who wantsto read a piece of a certain type (e.g. one that can be classified as “reportage” over one that can be classified as “opinion) – and therefore in labelling a piece as “reportage” or “opinion”?

This is likely because the reportage/opinion distinction still exists in most readers’ minds, at least in the form of a bimodal distribution. One mode represents the sort of piece that has only one voice and few references; the other mode represents the sort of piece that has multiple voices, multiple references or both. And getting rid of this modality will be difficult, a major reason being that time is limited. Readers only want to spend a certain fraction of their day reading something, and in that time, publishers would like the readers to be able to find the pieces they want. So in order to improve their content’s discoverability, editors have to consider branding it “reportage”, “opinion” or whatever.

(And this in turn will lead to a self-fulfilling retrenchment of the “reportage”/”opinion” modality in the readers’ minds.)

Featured image credit: Schmid-Reportagen/pixabay.

About Me

I’m a science editor and writer in India, interested in high-energy and condensed-matter physics, research misconduct, pseudoscience, science’s relationship with society, epic fantasy, open source/access/knowledge systems, H.R. Giger’s art, Goundamani’s comedy, Factorio, and most things that require a lot of time to get the hang of.