News or opinion? How the WSJ is showing readers the difference

Suzi Watford is EVP and chief marketing & membership officer at the Wall Street Journal

Is your audience “news literate”? 

According to The Media Insight Project, there is a public disconnect surrounding basic news terminology: Half their survey respondents didn’t know what an “op-ed” was. (And three in 10 were unclear on the difference between “editorial” and “news story.”)

This confusion only adds to the deteriorating trust that Americans have for news media. As 2021’s News Literacy Week concludes today, what can newsrooms and journalists take away from this effort to better inform readers and build back trust? 

The Wall Street Journal published a news literacy guide for readers to help navigate the differences between its news reporting and opinion pieces. We asked Suzi Watford, EVP and chief marketing & membership officer at WSJ, how this project will improve news literacy among WSJ readers and what success in media literacy looks like.

Can you share how your news literacy project came to be? What information or situations have helped prioritize the need? 

Watford: We have an influx of new readers as more people are turning to trusted sources. The extent of the coronavirus pandemic and the speed at which news is breaking globally has really escalated people’s need for trustworthy news and information. Our purpose is to be the source of truth for decisions-makers — sharing information and answering questions whenever we can is always a priority, but in times of unprecedented change, it becomes even more important.

If the last year has taught us anything, in these uncertain times, people look for a constant, a source of stability. And for a very long time, The Wall Street Journal has been that constant. 

The Journal has a strong reputation of being one of the most trusted newspapers brands and we feel a certain level of responsibility to advocate for news literacy and to help our readers, and future readers, identify and understand the differences between news, analysis and commentary and also provide guidance on how to spot misinformation.

The WSJ differentiates news articles and opinion pieces by labeling. What are some other ways to help readers — especially casual or occasional readers of the WSJ — to understand the difference, including when stories are shared via social media? 

Watford: This is a great question and something we’re constantly looking into. One of the clearest distinctions between a news article and an opinion piece is that a WSJ news article will have a standard text headline while a WSJ opinion piece will appear with an italic headline. Readers can also check the masthead on News articles show the default “WSJ” logo and an opinion piece shows a gold “Opinion” logo.

We share examples of how to identify these distinguishers on the news literacy site here.

A quick way to tell if what you are reading on social media is a WSJ news article or WSJ opinion piece is to look at the headline in the shared article. When a WSJ opinion piece is shared on social media, it will say “Opinion” at the beginning of the headline. 

What type of questions or feedback from readers have you received this week in response? 

Watford: We are constantly talking to our readers and asking for feedback. What do they need? How can we help them? 

We took them through the site before we launched because we wanted to understand where we were starting from and get a sense of the impact and education we’d be able to provide through this resource. These conversations also help to steer decisions about what topics we can and should cover next.

It’s early days but the feedback we’ve received so far is that readers are finding the video and the site to be very informative in helping to clarify — both to new and existing members — how we differentiate News and Opinion and also how to identify News and Opinion offerings on our digital platforms. It also gives them something to share with their friends, family and community to help explain. 

The project is very user-friendly — how did you decide on this approach for the display?  

Watford: Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen a record number of new audiences come to the Journal, a majority of them exploring our products for the very first time. We don’t want to assume that all of them are coming to the Journal with the same level and awareness of news literacy. 

We approached the creation of the site by taking the user through key questions they might have about our independent news and opinion departments. We started with an explanation before leading them through the “Why?” and “How?” we do it. We then addressed the question of “What’s the value to me?” and ended the site with how they can continue their news literacy education beyond WSJ. 

It was really important to us to develop a site that was concise and straight-forward. We didn’t want users to feel overwhelmed. This site provides a one-stop guide to everything they need to know about how the Journal’s newsroom and opinion pages operate independently from one another. 

Aside from this campaign, how are you addressing day-to-day confusion or misrepresentation of news and opinion pieces? 

Watford: This is only the beginning for us. We intend for this to be a long-term resource that we can continue to build upon as we receive questions and feedback from readers. And it’s not only for readers, this is a great resource for new employees at WSJ and Dow Jones to learn about the Journal and their colleagues. We think this campaign serves different needs and can help different audiences in a number of ways. Alongside this we are always testing how our journalism is displayed and experienced by members — having a lens of news literacy on this is crucial.

What is the No. 1 thing that journalists can do to help their communities understand the differences in news and opinion? 

Watford: We all play a role in educating readers on the different types of news content that exist and how to identify them.

There are a number of great resources to share with our communities and get involved in. The News Literacy Project has a series of tools, workshops and courses that can help everyone become responsible and more proactive news consumers. 

What does success in media literacy look like? 

Watford: For us, and this initiative, it’s about maintaining a dialogue with our readers to ensure their comfort level in defining and differentiating between news and opinion grows. We are also going to be using their feedback, as well as feedback from our colleagues, to continue evolving how we distinguish between the two digitally.

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