The term “editorial” in the mass media refers to a format designed to express the outlet’s or a particular author’s commentary or political position most openly and legitimately. In editorials the different media outlets establish a particular ideological profile that distinguishes them from their competitors and binds to them certain segments of the audience. Editorials must be seen in contrast to news reporting, which insists on being factual, objective, and impartial, thereby reflecting the world by describing it. The purpose of editorials is related to the more persuasive and evaluative functions of media performance. The newspaper, radio, or television program here seeks to express its distinctive view on issues of public concern, aiming to advise, evaluate, commend, rebuke, and imagine the world as it wishes it to be.
The significance of editorials is twofold. First, editorials serve as a figurehead that defines the political identity and values of the outlet, thereby signaling whether it would support either liberal or conservative positions. Through editorials, the media publicly express opinions and make use of their right to present themselves as autonomous actors in public and political debate (Page 1996). Second, editorials, and particularly the editorials of a nation’s agenda-setting media, are paid close attention by politicians, activist and interest groups, opinion makers, and other media. By speaking up openly in editorials, the outlet may exert influence on decision-makers and their decisions. There is also empirical evidence that news commentators do have a significant impact on public opinion and its changes over time (Page et al. 1987).
Editorials are often given a distinct space, which is labeled as editorial page or story, to distinguish it from the news coverage. Many publications have an editorial board or a group of opinion editors or commentators who decide on the tone and direction that the publications’ editorials will take. In Anglo-American journalism, editorials must not be written by the regular reporters or editors of news departments. Instead, they are authored by a separate group of individuals, who are not constrained by the rule of impartiality that governs news writing. In some European countries, however, staff policies regarding the separation of roles between newsmakers and opinion writers do not exist.
In contrast to news reporting, which is constrained by the professional rules, the logistics, and the time pressures of newsmaking, editorials are free from these external pressures. They can be taken as the result of some considered reasoning and opinion formation within the editorial staff (Eilders et al. 2004). Editorials are published without bylines, which means that they represent the newspapers’ or media outlets’ “official” position on issues. Editorials usually tackle current events of public concern or political controversies and intend to take a stance on them.
In order to broaden the spectrum of opinions offered in the newspaper, many outlets carry a so-called op-ed page, which is usually opposite the editorial page. These commentaries carry bylines and feature regular opinion columnists who present their own points of view. Most newspapers feature freelance writers, guest opinion writers, and nationally syndicated columnists to supplement the content of their editorial pages.
In communication research, editorials are primarily discussed as a special form of opinion journalism, which is distinct from news reporting. At the same time, the boundaries between news and opinion and the effect of media commentary on politics and public opinion have always been debated. In addition to ethical questions regarding the use of media power and the right of journalists to impose their opinion on the audience, questions of the instrumentalization of media commentary for political purposes emerge. It is safe to say, however, that the format of editorials is only meaningful in countries that guarantee the right of free speech and free media. Thus, editorials by their very nature are sensible expressions of media opinion only under the conditions of democracy and media pluralism.
Looking at editorials with respect to their political functions, it is important to differentiate between the tradition of Anglo-American journalism as compared to that of northern and continental European countries. This distinction is important as regards the partisanship of the press and the norm of objectivity in journalism. In the United States, the decline of the party press in the early twentieth century is seen as a consequence of the advent of a neutral commercial press that draws on a broad social consensus shared by the major parties in an otherwise pluralistic society (Schudson 2003). Journalism in this context turned to the norm of objective and factual reporting intended to bring about news that would serve the information needs of a most inclusive audience. Opinion was strictly limited to the editorials. In the European tradition, the press has always been granted to be partisan and divided across political party lines. Even if the party press has come to decline in most western European countries, the news media are politicized, which means that they not only represent the political cleavages in society but also feature the ideological spectrum of the political parties (Eilders 2002). Editorials clearly represent this traditional party–press parallelism.
The principal distinction between news reporting and expression of opinion has set the research agenda on editorials. Even though the norms of journalism prescribe strict separation between news coverage and editorials, it is an empirical question, after all, to what extent this principle is put in practice. This question is particularly pertinent in media systems in which news and editorials are written by the same editors. For instance, media research in Germany has demonstrated that news selection, news writing, and editorial opinion are synchronized to a greater or lesser degree (Schönbach 1977).
Finally, an essential question is when media opinion expressed in editorials turns into illegitimate political power over public opinion that constrains democratic principles. This question is all the more pressing since there is fairly solid evidence that news commentary does in fact have an impact upon how citizens and policymakers think and what candidates and policy preferences they support (Kahn & Kenney 2002). It remains open to further research to clarify the conditions under which these influences operate and to what end.
- Eilders, C. (2002). Conflict and consonance in media opinion: Political positions of five German quality newspapers. European Journal of Communication, 17(1), 25 – 64.
- Eilders, C., Neidhardt, F., & Pfetsch, B. (2004). Die Stimme der Medien: Pressekommentare und politische Öffentlichkeit in der Bundesrepublik [The voice of the media: Press editorials and the political public sphere in Germany]. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
- Kahn, K. F., & Kenney, P. J. (2002). The slant of the news: How editorial endorsements influence campaign coverage and citizen’s view of candidates. American Political Science Review, 96, 381–394.
- Page, B. (1996). The mass media as political actors. Political Science and Politics, 29(1), 20 –24.
- Page, B., Shapiro, I., Dempsey, R., & Glenn, R. (1987). What moves public opinion? American Political Science Review, 81(1), 23 – 43.
- Schudson, M. (2003). The sociology of news. New York: W.W. Norton.
- Schönbach, K. (1977). Trennung von Nachricht und Meinung [Separation between news and opinion]. Freiburg: Alber.