Declaring a truce on newspaper assumptions

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When you assume, the British comedian Benny Hill famously noted, you make an ASS out of U and ME.

Some journalists are serial assumers.

We take it for granted that by injecting certain elements into the way we present information, readers will magically discern opinion from news.

We use jargon that maybe made sense once upon a time, but is today as relevant as a Royal typewriter and a pica pole.

We obfuscate unwittingly, when our mission is to untangle and illuminate.

No wonder we’ve got bridges to build with our readers.

A decent starting point is defining basic terms. Here are some common newspaper terms that recent studies have shown are broadly misunderstood. On Sunday, we’ll outline several steps The Press is taking to improve understanding — and maybe even trust.

OP-ED: The page opposite the Opinions (or Editorial) page. Historically, the op-ed page has carried opinion pieces from professional columnists or experts in particular subjects. With newspapers shrinking the amount of space they have for content, however, op-ed pages are becoming increasingly rare.

ATTRIBUTION: According to the recent Media Insight Project, 43 percent of the general public aren’t sure what “attribution” means. Simply put, attribution is stating who said or wrote something. But it does go deeper than that.

Journalism educator Steve Buttry put it well when he wrote: “Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism. Attribution gives stories credibility and perspective. It tells readers how we know what we know… Effective use of attribution is a matter both of journalism ethics and of strong writing.”

EDITORIAL and NEWS STORY: Yet another finding of the comprehensive Media Insight Project, roughly 3 in 10 people don’t know the difference between an editorial and a news story.

An editorial is an opinion piece written by a member of the newspaper staff, representing the views of that newspaper’s editorial board. Editor Mike Patrick writes the editorials — including this one — for The Press, on behalf of the other three editorial board members: Publisher Larry Riley and owners Brad Hagadone and Duane Hagadone.

Where editorials come from the newspaper, other opinion pieces encouraging debate and discussion come from readers. These are letters to the editor, not editorials. They also can be longer pieces, called guest columns, op-ed pieces or, in the parlance of The Press, My Turns.

News stories are written by reporters. They cover the gamut of news, ranging from city council meetings to investigative stories, public school events to cops and courts stories.

News stories should be as objective as possible. They are meant to inform and occasionally to entertain or amuse. Editorials are meant to persuade, to promote further discourse, and to effect change.

ADS: Short for advertisements. Generally speaking, ads are paid for by businesses, political interests or individuals selling something. Ads are for sale. News stories and editorials are not. With different kinds of advertising now generating income for newspapers — advertorial, sponsored content and native content are fairly new terms for these marketing vehicles — it’s increasingly important for newspapers to properly label the different materials they’re presenting to readers.

That will be the starting point in Sunday’s editorial.

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