News and comment cannot coexist independently in a social system. Factual news and comment become twisted together like two strands of a rope. What is news? What is commentary? When we think of news, we often think of facts that refer to specific objects or events in the world. By contrast, commentary usually refers to a larger context. Commentary frames news. News and commentary are constructed of words, pictures, sounds, or other symbols of social meaning, but the communicator’s intent is different in each case. News reports aim to reconstruct events, to create pictures in the minds of audiences. Commentary aims to shape how audiences construct these events. Commentary has intent. While news media usually are careful to separate news from commentary, audiences naturally blend them together. We can obtain a picture of events from news stories alone, as all news stories contain some evaluative descriptions beyond the facts, and one can learn events from commentaries alone, and still will learn some facts.
The separation of news from comment can be studied in all communication systems – in some there is more separation at times than in others, more in some periods of history, less in others (societies under stress) – but news and comment cannot be easily separated and must be evaluated in terms of how they interact within a particular social system. Even if media strictly separate news from editorials and columns, audiences necessarily put the two together as part of the construction of social reality.
One can make an analogy with agenda-setting theory. Agenda setting, level 1, proposes that the connection between media and audiences at the level of news topics is close. Agenda setting, level 2, argues that the connection between the details in news stories and audience attention is likewise close. Within agenda-setting theory one can argue that news stories contain a heavy focus on facts with some details about events, while news commentary focuses on interpretive detail linked with the same facts. McCombs (2004) has called major news event topics “objects” and details about events “attributes.” In this sense, news stories could be described as objects-over-attributes messages, while commentary can be visualized as attributes-over-objects messages. No message is purely news and no message is purely commentary. There is always a mixture.
Attributes contextualize objects, as the comments of editorial writers, columnists, letters to the editor, photographs, and audio and video contextualize the facts of news events on the front page. If we lived in the controlled environments in which behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner limited behavior and provided rewards for correct behavior, we might expect the relationships between news (objects) and comment (attributes), demonstrated by correlations between news and audiences, to be close to 1.00. That is, audiences given proper rewards for attending to messages would reflect messages in exactly the proportions in which they are presented, in terms of objects and attributes, and audiences therefore would be quite able to keep separate in their heads information learned from news and that learned from commentary. Of course, no one does that, even if the media carefully separate news and commentary.
Professional journalists constantly wrestle with balancing fact and comment statements. Journalists construct their social roles relative to the way they gather, organize, and present messages, nearly always with reference to some larger professional duty, such as fairness or objectivity. Clarity in dividing news and comment is often determined by culture. France’s Le Monde and Germany’s Der Spiegel contextualize news. In Britain, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian are newspapers to which audiences turn for a dependable selection and presentation of news and commentary consistent with their own views. The separation of news and commentary cannot really be addressed without reference to political and cultural systems. The Chinese government tolerates a wide range of news, and even some comment, about purely economic issues, but requires political news to exist within a particular, tightly controlled range. US journalists pride themselves on their objectivity about news, defined as presenting political messages that provide equal, or at least fair, attention to all aspects of political issues, while directing commentary to editorial pages or personal columns. The free market system exerts influence. Many countries, from Russia to Syria to China, have government-controlled television networks. Britain’s BBC is government-funded, but editorially independent. Al Jazeera represents still another model that is consistently non-objective, while being ostensibly independent of government authority. In fact, all systems find a natural balance between news and comment, however defined for a given national system and culture.
Political leaders, journalists, social scientists, and others are interested in media systems that help citizens function responsibly. There are many ways to examine the performance of information systems in presenting news and comment. There are basically two empirical measures to examine the separation of news and commentary. The first looks at the use of language in the news. What topics are covered? The second compares the valence of items in the news or commentary. To this latter approach belong “synchronization studies.” They assess the degree to which news and commentary are separated in a news system or in individual news outlets. By means of content analyses one can compare how the valence of the news items correlates with the valence of commentaries on the same issue. One study found that newspapers in the United States reported the number of participants in anti-war demonstrations that were consistent with the newspapers’ position on the Vietnam War, as expressed in their editorials and opinion columns. Similar results were found for German reports about the Berlin conflict in the 1970s (Schönbach 1977) and several other political issues (Kepplinger et al. 1991; Hagen 1992).
The balance between news and commentary varies from country to country, culture to culture. Agenda-setting studies in Germany, Britain, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Australia, and various countries in Africa and South America suggest audiences everywhere are likely to reflect attention to news and commentary in predictable patterns. If we used the same heuristic as Sir Isaac Newton – the attraction of forces, not objects – we might conclude that while news and comment may appear adverse to each other within any particular national or cultural setting, audiences meld news and comment into a social construction that fits their own lives, reflecting, perhaps, a law of social gravity that we have not yet discovered.
- Hagen, L. (1992). Die opportunen Zeugen: Konstruktionsmechanismen von Bias in der Zeitungsberichterstattung über die Volkszählungsdiskussion [The opportune witnesses: Mechanisms of the construction of bias in news on the micro census]. Publizistik, 37, 444–460.
- Kepplinger, H. M., Brosius, H.-B., & Staab, J. F. (1991). Instrumental actualization: A theory of mediated conflicts. European Journal of Communication, 6, 263–290.
- Mann, L. (1974). Counting the crowd: Effects of editorial policy on estimates. Journalism Quarterly, 55, 278–285.
- McCombs, M. (2004). Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion. Cambridge: Polity.
- Schönbach, K. (1977). Trennung von Nachricht und Meinung: Empirische Untersuchung eines journalistischen Qualitätskriteriums [Separation of facts and opinion: An empirical study of a criterion of journalistic quality]. Freiburg and Munich: Karl Alber.