NPR is changing the way it labels opinion content online next week. Readers of npr.org will be well served by this move, which will more clearly distinguish news content from pieces that express personal opinions or take sides on an issue.
Starting July 25, online content that is currently labeled as "Commentary" — including pieces on the 13.7: Cosmos & Culture blog and the NPR Ombudsman column — will instead be called "Opinion," highlighted in bright blue. Book, movie and television reviews will also get a new blue "Review" label.
In a memo that went out to the staff today, Sara Goo, interim managing editor for digital news, and Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, explained the coming change this way:
"Often, readers sometimes see a headline and read a teaser, but don't understand when a piece is part of NPR's reporting or whether it reflects the personal/professional view of a guest or reviewer. We don't want readers to be confused. They shouldn't think that the opinion of one person reflects the opinion of NPR. In fact, we don't ever want to give the false impression that NPR takes sides on issues."
Another change will relocate the identification of the author of an opinion piece — which gives readers a sense of the author's expertise and where they are coming from — to the start of the piece, instead of at the end (a legacy from newspapers). "We know most people don't read to the end," Goo told me.
The "Opinion" label will include "anything we publish that provides an expression of one's personal point of view and advocates a position or a call to action," Goo said. The word was changed to "opinion" because "commentary" "was too vague," she added.
Pieces that are considered "analysis" will continue to be labeled as such, Goo said, with no separate visual cues. That category of content — the work of Ron Elving, senior editor and correspondent on NPR's Washington desk, comes most immediately to mind — draws on a reporter's expertise to provide context about a story but stops short of personal opinions or calls to action. (NPR listeners are often confused by these pieces and can hear them as "opinion" even though they are not; NPR might consider adding another visual distinction or better explain what "analysis" is, as well.)
NPR publishes much less opinion content than many other news outlets, but I believe these changes are a good step toward transparency and addressing what has become a problem in the wider media world, as well: the jumbling of news reporting, analysis and opinion, which is confusing news consumers and helping drive mistrust. NPR does not have a separate place for opinion pieces (unlike newspapers, say, which segregate such content on the editorial pages), so it's particularly important that such content is obvious to readers when it appears on the NPR home page or on a mobile app or in a social media feed.
Now if I could just convince NPR's on-air reporters and hosts to better label on-air commentary and to give more expansive descriptions of the political leanings and partisan funding of interviewees, which remain persistent concerns of listeners.