Guidelines for Properly Identifying Commentary in News Coverage

There is a place for commentary journalism, but it is not a substitute for careful sourced fact based reporting. The viewer/listener/reader should never be confused by what is “reporting” and what is “commentary.” Commentary should always be clearly identified and distinguished from objective fact based reporting. When news outlets present news commentary we recommend finding ways to inform consumers that the content being delivered is commentary or opinion. Reporters can deliver that in written copy, or the word “commentary” can be displayed within the broadcast or digital content piece.   
 
ETHICS TRAINING 
Members of the RTDNA Board of Directors and Ethics Committee, Tim Scheld of WCBS Newsradio 880 in New York City and Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director, review these new coverage guideline and develop strategies to apply them in your newsroom.

In case there is any confusion about what commentary is, a good rule of thumb is when phrases like “I think”, “I believe”, “In my opinion” are used in your news copy you are straying into the arena of commentary. Commentary is different from analysis. Journalists sometimes provide analysis, which is context for understanding a story.  Analysis is not opinion; it is a way of adding fact-based clarity. 
 
Journalists should avoid delivering commentaries about issues that they are covering.  When journalists mix commentary and reporting roles, reasonable readers/viewers/listeners may be confused about which role you are fulfilling on any given day.   
 
Commentary should be fact-based and commentators should reveal the source of their facts just as journalist’s source their news reporting. The best commentary adds clarity to complexity and does not offer simplistic solutions at the expense of nuanced understanding.
 
There is a difference between commentary and editorial statements.  Editorials stake out a stations considered position on a matter of importance.  A top-level manager who can say that she/he is speaking for the station should deliver editorials.  Editorials advocate for change or action. Similarly, journalists or non-journalists can also offer a point of view, an opinion, or deliver commentaries. However, it is the stations/organizations responsibility to identify the content as commentary or opinion and make clear that the opinions expressed represent the individual’s point of view and may or may not represent the station’s position.   
 
With help from Al Tompkins, the Poynter Institute's Senior Faculty for Broadcast and Online.