How Opinions Work in the News
By Emmett Pennington-Guthrie
Here at The Collegian, we focus on reporting facts, which can often be confused with opinions. As such, distinguishing between the two is especially important for our writers here.
Why does this differentiation matter? In the media, it is essential that what is being reported is fact, but the line between fact and opinion isn’t always clear.
Nancy Semotiuk, communications professor, defined opinion as “a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. It can hold someone or something up in a false light.”  Semotiuk then defined fact as that which “can be documented,” meaning “it’s the truth of something as opposed to interpretation.” 
Perhaps the most impactful example of this regards Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who in 2020 faced a court case in which his lawyers argued that the “‘general tenor’ of [his] show should then inform a viewer that [Carlson] is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.'” 
Effectively, this argument reasons that Carlson’s show isn’t intended to be taken seriously. Currently, the Fox News website has the following description of his show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight:” “On his program each night, Carlson features powerful analysis and helps bring important perspective to what’s happening in America and around the world.” 
Semotiuk’s view on the topic is clear: “There’s a place of opinion and a place for news. Opinion disguised as fact is another issue.”  Even on a smaller scale, such as here at The Collegian, it is essential that we make sure our reporting remains factual, and that our opinions are known to be nothing more.
When opinion is conflated with fact, it becomes difficult to distinguish reality in media. This isn’t to say that opinions shouldn’t be presented in the media, because, as Semotiuk noted, “opinion has always had a place in the news media. The media has always run opinion columns.” 
Issues may arise when the demarcations between opinion and fact are no longer clear. For instance, if a cable news host presents an opinion alongside a fact in the same breath without clearly distinguishing the two, there is a possibility for viewers to mistake the opinion for fact.
There are real-life consequences for opinions blurring with facts, or for total fabrications being confused with reality. Semotiuk pointed out that “political animosity in the United States is extremely high” and highlighted the prevalence of confirmation bias in the news. 
The QAnon conspiracy highlights the effects of this. On Nov. 2, 2021, many QAnon supporters came to Dallas, Texas, for what they believed would be John F. Kennedy Jr.’s reappearance.  Of course, Kennedy Jr. died in 1999 and the QAnon supporters ultimately left empty-handed.
Make no mistake, the QAnon meeting on that day may not have caused any harm, but it is a clear representation of how powerful misinformation and confirmation bias can be. The individuals who went to Dallas fell for a lie because they wanted to believe it, and it is not just internet conspiracies that influence these types of actions.
The QAnon conspiracy theory isn’t directed by any formal media organization, but the outcomes of its followers are influenced by news sources such as Fox News. Tucker Carlson recently released a streaming series in which he suggested that the Jan. 6 insurrection was undertaken by enemies of Donald Trump, and Carlson has been promoting his series on his show. 
These types of opinions, when presented in a factual sort of manner, may lead viewers towards inadvisable views, which is what creates situations like the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt.
This raises the question: what might need to change? Semotiuk argued that what we need is transparency, that it is necessary for opinions to be very clearly identified as such upon presentation, so there’s no confusion as to what is or is not fact. Much like how YouTube creators must disclose when a company has given them products to endorse, Semotiuk argues, it may be best for media figures to be required to highlight any opinions they share. 
- Interview with Nancy Semotiuk, 11/5/2021.
- Folkenflik, D. (2020, September 29). You literally can’t believe the facts Tucker Carlson tells you. So say Fox’s lawyers. NPR. https://n.pr/3EXkNft
- FOX News Network. (n.d.). Tucker Carlson. Fox News. Retrieved November 10, 2021, from https://www.foxnews.com/person/c/tucker-carlson.
- Email interview with Nancy Semotiuk, 11/5/2021.
- Williams, M., and Marfin, C. (2021, November 2). Qanon supporters gather in downtown Dallas expecting JFK Jr. to reappear. Dallas News. https://bit.ly/3H1HGjL
- Folkenflik, D., & Dreisbach, T. (2021, November 3). ‘off the rails’: New Tucker Carlson Project for fox embraces conspiracy theories. NPR. https://n.pr/3mTK9oq
- Interview with Nancy Semotiuk, 11/5/2021.