A commentary is a genre of journalism that provides interpretations and opinions on current events, rather than factual reporting. Interpretations may include evaluating the motives behind actors’ behaviors, interpreting the wider scope and meaning of events, and assessing the ramifications and significance of facts. It also includes speculation, such as forecasting future events and foreseeing the behaviors of actors in the news. Opinions, on the other hand, mean promoting or advocating specific standpoints, ideals, or policies.
Commentary has a principal function in the public sphere. As the free expression and exchange of ideas is necessary for the formation of public opinion, commentary is crucial for the democratic function of the media. Historically, commentary became an integral part of the press long before journalism as an institutional practice and profession was invented (Chalaby 1996). In fact, partisan reporting outdates the ideal of objective journalism by more than a century. The evolution of objectivity as a journalistic ideal, and the neutral, descriptive style of journalistic expression are closely connected to the growth of professionalism and of journalism as an independent social force in the 1900s (Schudson 1996).
In the US this modernization process gradually took place from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. The early US newspapers in the 1700s were governed by the printer of news, speaking in a universal voice that was impartial and neutral (Barnhurst & Nerone 2002). Later, in the 1800s reporting often had a partisan tendency or bias, as the press became affiliated with political parties. The early commentaries in the US press were mainly found in editorial columns, where politicians’ statements were praised or criticized from an engaged, partisan stance (Schudson 1996). The news reports expressed a simple notion of objectivity; reporting or “mirroring” events in a manner that meant describing what the observers on the scene could see for themselves.
This approach changed gradually during the first half of the twentieth century. To an increasing extent the news started to assess the larger political meaning of the messages. The journalist was becoming an independent interpreter of news rather than a reporter of immediate events. This was a manifestation of a shift in power and focus from editors to journalists. Journalistic professionalization eroded political parallelism, and the ideal of objectivity was established in the 1920s. One of the basic premises in the objective style of reporting was that news should be separated from views and facts from opinions.
In a comparative perspective the trajectory toward modern journalism is not as straightforward as appears in this short description of the US development. Forms and styles of journalism vary across cultures and contexts, and although the development of the European press, both northern and southern, shows many parallels to that in the US, there are also many differences (Hallin & Mancini 2004; Høyer & Pöttker 2005). The notion of objectivity is more pronounced in North American journalism than in other western democracies. US news tends to be more information and fact-oriented, particularly in comparison to journalism in southern Europe. The informational approach is connected to a neutral style of reporting. In southern Europe, the advocacy tradition of the press persists more strongly. Commentary is mixed more freely with factual reporting, and the southern style of writing is also more interpretive and evaluative. In northern Europe, and particularly in the Scandinavian countries, journalism has a long tradition of a strong party-political affiliation. Here a depoliticization of the press gradually came about in the second half of the twentieth century. A legacy of commentary-oriented journalism is coupled with an equally strong public service tradition in broadcasting, where public service from the outset was supposed to vouch for balance, fairness, and neutrality in reporting. Comparative studies of journalists’ ideals and norms also suggest that the ideal of objectivity isn’t prevalent everywhere in the world. Obviously, in countries that lack freedom of speech and where the media is closely monitored or even controlled by the government, commentaries on current affairs often tend to represent the power-holders’ point of view.
In the 2000s, commentary is an integral part of journalism worldwide. National journalistic cultures still exist in the 2000s, although research suggests an increasing homogenization of journalism, particularly due to market pressure and globalization (Hallin & Mancini 2004). Commentary today exists in various forms and formats, from the long-lived editorials and traditional commentaries in current affairs magazines, to journalistic talk shows, Internet blogs, and online magazines in the 2000s. Internet blogs represent a further blurring of the boundaries between facts and views, as journalists here may have more far-reaching opportunities to express opinions than in the traditional news media. Commentary does not pertain only to political reporting. It permeates other journalistic topics and beats, such as business news, and sports news. Where commentary was historically rooted in specific social and cultural contexts and categories (class, religion, gender, race, and geography), in the 2000s it is supposedly free from such biases. Publicists in the 1800s and early 1900s often advocated the interest of particular social groups and analyzed the world from the viewpoint of the group they represented. Commentaries persist today but now rest on the purportedly disinterested critical expertise of professional journalists. However, journalists are increasingly speaking in their own voice, delivering interpretations and speculations more often than opinions, advocating nothing but the legitimacy of the profession.
- Barnhurst, K., & Nerone, J. (2002). The form of news: A history. New York: Guilford.
- Chalaby, J. (1988). The invention of journalism. London: Macmillan.
- Hallin, D., & Mancini, P. (2004). Comparing media systems: Three models of media and politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Høyer, S., & Pöttker P. (eds.) (2005). Diffusion of the news paradigm 1850 –2000. Gothenburg: Nordicom.
- Schudson, M. (1996). The power of news. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.