Opinions disguised as news should prompt the question, "Says who?"
Published September 21, 2023
By Mitch Kokai
A recent scan of North Carolina news headlines prompted a couple of major “says who?” moments for this observer.
“Says who?” represents my typical reaction to statements of unattributed opinion that seep their way into news stories. It’s fairly common. In most instances, the absence of attribution doesn’t merit a response.
But when an opinion presented as fact leads a news article, this proponent of old-school journalism can’t help but cringe.
Such was the case with a recent News and Observer article about economic development. Writer Brian Gordon led with the following assertion: “Megasites are steering the present and future of North Carolina’s economy.”
That line would fit well in an opinion article like the one you’re reading now. An advocate could tout megasites’ importance to North Carolina’s economic future. The author could offer anecdotes, present statistics, and quote experts. Readers could factor the author’s occupation and affiliation into an assessment of his arguments. Opinion pieces boost the open flow of competing ideas.
Yet the N&O presented Gordon’s article as news. Readers are expected to accept as fact that government-secured tracts of land “steer” the state’s economy.
The unattributed opening line might have worked in a news story if Gordon had followed up with “that’s according to” or “so says” or some other link between the asserted opinion and a source other than the newspaper staff.
The most likely source of that opinion might be the first person Gordon quotes. Christopher Chung leads the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. Chung is helping the state “lure its next big fish,” with “15 major private initiatives that would each invest more than $1 billion.”
It makes sense for someone in Chung’s line of work to believe top-down government recruitment efforts and targeted incentives “steer” the economy.
Had Gordon or an editor tied the opening statement to Chung, it might have occurred to them that a more balanced article would include input from experts with a different view. Plenty of economists assign much less importance to megasites and government-driven central economic planning.
Even if the alternate view had been buried deep in the article, faithful N&O readers could have learned about criticism of government-led economic development.
Lower tax rates, scaled-back growth of government spending, and lighter regulatory burdens appeal to more than just the “big fish” that generate headlines. Policies that make it easier for any business to operate in North Carolina help those who are already here, those looking to relocate, and those that exist now only in the minds of budding entrepreneurs.
Shortly after reading the megasite article, I saw another piece that triggered the internal “says who?” sensor.
Will Doran at WRAL.com informed readers that “Republican state lawmakers this week are expected to pass a sweeping and controversial change to elections laws — one that could help GOP lawmakers further cement control of the state for years to come.”
It’s true that Democratic critics consider the legislation in question, Senate Bill 749, both “sweeping” and “controversial.” It’s also true that Democrats fear the bill is designed to help Republican lawmakers strengthen their control over state government policy.
Why not attribute the opinion in Doran’s article to Democratic politicians? Or even to political scientists or left-of-center activists who have expressed concerns about the proposed election changes?
The news outlet does its readers a disservice by presenting unattributed opinion as fact.
As with the case of the megasite story, linking the opening statement of opinion to its source — someone other than a reporter or editor — might have prompted the journalists to seek the balance of an alternative view.
Doran gets closer to the mark later in his piece about the elections bill:
“The biggest change, to create evenly split boards, is on its face a bipartisan reform. Critics say that’s just a facade, intended to hide more sinister motives. But the legislature’s GOP leaders say it’s needed to improve voters’ confidence in election results.”
Even though he doesn’t name the critics, at least Doran avoids presenting the notion of a “facade” hiding “sinister motives” as plain fact. He also offers Republican legislators’ counterargument.
It’s not clear that either of these “says who?” examples exposes a reporter or editor trying explicitly to present one side of an active political argument as obviously correct. A more charitable view points instead toward sloppy journalism.
This column is not designed to castigate Gordon, Doran, or their employers. I aim instead to help readers of articles presented as news. When you encounter a statement of unattributed opinion in a piece otherwise presented as a set of facts, it’s always worthwhile to ask, “Says who?”
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.