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Public editor: Making the distinction between reporting and opinion

Rush hour traffic on Spadina Avenue near Front Street in Toronto on Nov. 29, 2013.

DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In the newspaper, readers generally understand the difference between news reporting and commentary. Comments and opinions are either set up differently with a columnist's picture or grouped together on comment pages.

Online is a trickier proposition.

If you come in to a story through the front door by clicking on the Opinion page, you will see articles which are clearly comment. Even if you come in through the back door, i.e. through a link or Facebook or Twitter, those same news opinions include the label Globe Debate at the top left-hand corner.

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Here's an example of one today by Kevin Lynch.

That transparency is very important. Readers need to see that this is an opinion and whose opinion. In this case, Kevin Lynch is described as a contributor and his day job is listed in italics at the bottom of the comment.

But last week a reader wrote in about this article.

It is on the Report on Business section of the site under Economy Lab, a section that is not clearly marked as opinion. The article puts forward the controversial view that more roads, not transit, will ease congestion. The article shows that the writer Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa.

But unlike other comment or opinion articles, that is the only indication it is a comment piece. The guiding language at the top says it is "Economy Lab: Delving into the forces that shape our living standards."

The reader, who disagreed with the opinion stated, argued that it was published as reporting, not opinion.

That reader makes an important point about transparency in opinion writing. While the article reads as comment, it was not well marked and needs a better description at least in the small print that these are outside experts arguing economic policy, not reporters putting forward the facts.

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If you would like to contact me you can do so at PublicEditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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