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The Exciting Rush to Opinion-Based Journalism Can Create a Real Mess

Media around the world are debating the value of opinion and the role it plays in their editorial mix. Time was, the front page of a newspaper was sacrosanct. No editorial or column was to appear on such valued real estate. The idea was that by relegating opinion to clearly delineated areas of  a publication, such as the back pages, then readers could read the “fair, objective” news coverage and then refer to opinion as a second option.

But that got boring, and as readers fled the staid newspapers of the past, journalists began experiment with placing columns and editorials in all sorts of places, including on the front page. Of course, these columns were clearly labeled, so readers could discern the difference between straight news and opinion.

But that got boring and now media are competing with each other for top-notch talent able to unleash opinion on a moment’s notice. And this opinion is flung far and wide, on front pages, special sections, websites, blogs, Twitter and other social media.

And that is not boring. Far from it. It is exhilarating and dangerous, informative and damaging.

Arthur Brisbane addressed this topic recently when explaining changes in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section, now called Sunday Review. The change, he note, “marks a decided turn toward more opinion journalism.”

We took note of  this rush to opinion journalism at the end of 2010 in predicting that publications would make changes enhancing point-of-view journalism.

David Kaplan of Paid Content attributes the desire to insert more opinion journalism as a driving force behind changes at Reuters.com, as well as Bloomberg and Dow Jones.

“Bloomberg, Reuters and Dow Jones have been working diligently on becoming more “consumer facing,” that is, appealing to wider professional audience than the financial markets professionals who subscribe to their respective services. The feeling is that as the business of news is flattened on the web, where traditional print brands are effectively rendered equal in terms of distribution and reach, these financial information companies can expand their presence to both readers and advertisers, thereby enhancing their core services.

"That’s why Reuters has gone on such a hiring binge and has been aiming for prestigious journalism prizes with its long-form “enterprise reporting” and hiring star reporters like the New York Times’ Rohde. It’s also why Bloomberg hired former NYT op-ed editor David Shipley and one-time Clinton Administration-era Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin to run its opinion features.”

But taken to its extreme, there is a real danger to mixing the power of media with a strong, albeit clearly stated, point of view. And for a sample of extreme media, look to the disarray among the liberal and conservative newspapers in the U.K.

On Sunday, Rupert Murdoch closed one of the oldest and highest selling newspapers in the U.K., The News of the World, after allegations that the paper illegally eavesdropped on the phone messages of murder and terror victims, politicians and celebrities.

The media in Great Britain are known for over-the-top slanted reporting and exceedingly aggressive reporting tactics. The News of the World took these to an extreme that has damaged reputations, put hundreds out of work and ended an institution.

Howard Kurtz, who left the Washington Post for the Daily Beast because he wanted more freedom to express his opinion, wrote today that the U.S. media may not be far behind the U.K.’s tabloid.

So as media rush to herald “opinion-based journalism” watch for those who slip from publishing more point-of-view information to abusive, obnoxious and potentially illegal practices. To see how quickly this shift can occur, just ask former commentator Mark Halperin.

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