Editorial Journalism and Newspapers’ Editorial Opinions
- Julie FirmstoneJulie FirmstoneSchool of Media and Communication, University of Leeds
Editorial journalism and newspapers’ editorial opinions represent an area of research that can make an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship between the press and politics. Editorials are a distinctive format and are the only place in a newspaper where the opinions of a paper as an organization are explicitly represented. Newspapers and the journalists who write editorials play a powerful role in constructing political debate in the public sphere. They use their editorial voice to attempt to influence politics either indirectly, through reaching public opinion, or directly, by targeting politicians. Editorial journalism is at its most persuasive during elections, when newspapers traditionally declare support for candidates and political parties. Despite the potential of editorial opinions to influence democratic debate, and controversy over the way newspapers and their proprietors use editorials to intervene in politics, editorial journalism is under-researched. Our understanding of the significance of this distinctive form of journalism can be better understood by exploring four key themes.
First, asking “What is editorial journalism?” establishes the context of editorial journalism as a unique practice with opinion-leading intentions. Several characteristics of editorial journalism distinguish it from other formats and genres. Editorials (also known as leading articles) require a distinctive style and form of expression, occupy a special place in the physical geography of a newspaper, represent the collective institutional voice of a newspaper rather than that of an individual, have no bylines in the majority of countries, and are written with differing aims and motivations to news reports. The historical development of journalism explains the status of editorials as a distinctive form of journalism. Professional ideals and practices evolved to demand objectivity in news reporting and the separation of fact from opinion. Historically, editorial and advocacy journalism share an ethos for journalism that endeavors to effect social or political change, yet editorial journalism is distinctive from other advocacy journalism practices in significant ways. Editorials are also an integral part of the campaign journalism practiced by some newspapers.
Second, research and approaches in the field of political communication have attributed a particularly powerful role to editorial journalism. Rooted in the effects tradition, researchers have attributed an important role to editorials in informing and shaping debate in the public sphere in four ways: (1) as an influence on readers, voters, and/or public opinion; (2) as an influence on the internal news agendas and coverage of newspapers; (3) as an influence on the agendas and coverage in other news media; and (4) as an influence on political or policy agendas. Theorizing newspapers as active and independent political actors in the political process further underpins the need to research editorial journalism. Third, editorial journalism has been overlooked by sociological studies of journalism practices. Research provides a limited understanding of the routines and practices of editorial journalists and the organization of editorial opinion at newspapers. Although rare, studies focusing on editorial journalism show that editorial opinion does not simply reflect the influence of proprietors, as has often been assumed. Rather, editorial opinions are shaped by a complex range of factors. Finally, existing research trajectories and current developments point to new challenges and opportunities for editorial journalism. These challenges relate to how professional norms respond to age-old questions about objectivity, bias, and partisanship in the digital age.
Introducing Editorial Journalism
The potential for newspapers’ editorial opinions to influence voters and politicians has driven debate and scholarship to coalesce around editorial opinion as the most tangible manifestation of the power of the press. Elections are very often followed by public debate about the power of newspapers to shape the outcome. Indeed, newspapers are not averse to claiming responsibility for influencing voters, as evidenced by the notorious British tabloid headline “It’s the Sun wot won it” the day after the unexpected election of a Conservative government in 1992. Whether editorials have the power to change voters’ behavior is contested, yet much scholarship is based on the premise that newspapers’ opinions at least exert some influence in the construction of public knowledge: “How editorial writers interpret and use facts and opinions to persuade, to set an agenda, or to scold can bring about an important different meaning for the reading public” (Hallock, 2007, p. 11).
The distinctive role of editorials as the collective identity of a newspaper and their overt and deliberate persuasive intentions distinguish editorial journalism from other journalism. Our understanding of the significance of this distinctive form can be better understood by structuring an analysis of research and theoretical approaches to editorial journalism into four key themes. The first draws on research to define editorial journalism as a distinctive practice. The second theme considers the significance attributed to editorial journalism by theoretical approaches that conceptualize the opinion-leading role of the press and provide evidence of the persuasive power of editorials in the public sphere. In the third theme, findings from sociological studies of the practice of editorial journalism are reviewed to consider influences on newspapers’ editorial opinions. Finally, existing research trajectories and current developments point to new challenges and opportunities for editorial journalism. These challenges relate to how professional norms respond to age-old questions about objectivity, bias, and partisanship in the digital age.
Editorial Journalism as a Distinct Genre and Practice
The genre of editorial journalism is exclusive to newspapers and refers to the practice of writing editorial articles (editorials), sometimes known as leaders or leading articles. These articles make up the editorial column, an historical feature of the printed newspaper format worldwide although there are some places where editorials are not commonplace including Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria.1 Editorials are published in the name of the newspaper rather than attributed to individual journalists (see below for exceptions), and are intended to represent the collective opinion or the public voice of a newspaper. Editorials allow newspapers to make allegiances known; support and oppose individuals; speak on behalf of their readers; speak to readers; and speak to politicians, parties, and other organizations. Editorial journalism is not be confused with the use of the term “editorial” to refer to content in a news product that has been produced as journalism rather than other non-journalistic content such as advertising. The concept as explored here also differs from “editorializing,” which can occur in all types of journalism. Editorializing refers to instances when a personal opinion is expressed, usually when a journalist should only be giving a report of the facts.
Editorials differ from other opinion formats such as columns, commentary pages, letters to the editor, op-ed pages, or guest contributions. Formats vary but it is most common for editorials to be physically located toward the front or midway through the newspaper, and they are usually adjacent to the op-ed pages, cartoons, and letters to the editor. In some places editorials appear on the back page (Greece), on the front page (Saudi Arabia), or either on the front page or the first four to six pages (China). In some countries, there are variations among newspapers, for example, with some publishing editorials with bylines on page 2 and others giving comment in the name of the paper on page 22 (France). In Australia, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Kenya, and the United Kingdom, papers tend to publish editorials in roughly the same place (the middle) each day as a matter of tradition. With the exception of Greece, Sweden, some French papers (and no doubt some other countries), editorials are not attributed to individual journalists because they represent the collective voice of the newspaper.
The separation and clear identification of editorial articles as opinion has been carried over to online versions of newspapers. Editorials are written by specialist journalists known as leader writers (in the United Kingdom) who occupy senior positions within newspapers and/or by members of the editorial board (in the United States), and by high profile named journalists (Greece). In the most common format in the United Kingdom, a daily leader column consists of three editorial articles, usually of diminishing length and with the first article indicating prominence. Editorials vary in length according to the traditional newspapers formats (broadsheet/quality/tabloid) and are rarely over five hundred words. The editorial (or leader) column is most often visually framed as the institutional view of the paper, with headers that often include newspaper mastheads, value statements, crests, or logos. In exceptional cases such as election time or as part of a newspaper’s campaign, editorial opinion is published in a different format to give it greater prominence. Publishing editorials in unusual places such as on the front page (rare in the United Kingdom), or devoting an entire page or a double-page spread to an editorial pushes a newspaper’s opinion further up the agenda (Firmstone, 2016, 2017).
The visual and physical demarcation of editorials from other content evolved as a crucial practice by which to observe the professional journalistic norm of separating fact from opinion. The ethical motivation to ensure that fact-based content is not tainted is further assured by the common practice of enforcing an unmovable boundary between the roles of news and opinion production.
The History of Editorial Journalism
Editorials and their status as a distinct genre stem from the historical development of journalism as a profession with ideals and practices that demand news reporting to be objective, to separate fact from opinion and, in the United States, to maintain a commitment to neutrality (a non-partisan press). The editorial emerged as a distinct format in response to the norms and values associated with the establishment of journalism as a profession in the early 20th century. Comprehensive historical accounts of the development of newspaper journalism (predominantly only available for the United States) describe how the separation of fact and opinion became a central organizing principle of journalistic practice (Jacobs & Townsley, 2011; Schudson, 1978). In tracing the origins of the leading article back to Victorian times, Liddle describes editorial journalism in the 1800s as “the most important, authoritative, and characteristic mode of British journalism” (Liddle, 1999, p. 5).
From a point in the 1860s when the U.S. press was at its most political and expressed allegiances to political parties explicitly, newspapers moved to cut their official ties with political parties over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great value was placed on demonstrating independence from parties and government through objective, fair, balanced reporting. At the same time, newspapers and their owners wanted to assert their voice as an independent and powerful force in public deliberation.
The creation of the editorial column in the United States in the 1920s enabled a strict separation of fact-based “objective” journalism from opinion (Schudson, 1978). Editorials were introduced as a vehicle to illustrate to readers a newspaper’s independence from government on a daily basis (Conboy, 2005). The segregation of news reporting from editorial opinion also served to allow journalists to defend their reporting as independent from the capitalist interests of newspaper owners. In the early 21st century, journalistic norms in the United States dictate that news pages report objectively and autonomously from the political views and opinions of the editorial board and proprietors. This requirement features in the American Society of News Editors “Statement of Principles”: “To be impartial does not require the press to be unquestioning or to refrain from editorial expression. Sound practice, however, demands a clear distinction for the reader between news reports and opinion. Articles that contain opinion or personal interpretation should be clearly identified” (ASNE, 2018).
The corresponding regulatory guidelines in the United Kingdom highlight a key difference in the way that the objectivity norm developed on each side of the Atlantic. Although objectivity in the United States was bound up with the development of an impartial press, the values British newspaper journalists associated with objectivity did not evolve to prohibit partisanship (Hampton, 2008). Instead, objectivity was more about independence and truth, and developed in institutionally specific contexts. The Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO) guidelines state that newspapers are “free to editorialise and campaign but are obliged to make a clear distinction between comment, conjecture and fact” (IPSO, 2018). In spite of these voluntary regulations, the line between opinion and fact-based news reporting in the United Kingdom is blurred. Although no longer officially aligned with political parties, the U.K. press is famously partisan. Although news reporting purports to operate separately from opinion, it is generally agreed that editorial opinions shape the selection and framing of news reports.
Unfortunately, less is known about the historical development of editorial journalism in other cultural contexts. As the field of journalism studies expands, cross-national studies reveal that objectivity varies in importance in different journalistic cultures (Hallin & Mancini, 2004). For example, in Germany a clear distinction is not made between subjective commentary and news reporting (Esser, 1998; Hallin & Mancini, 2004). Despite such country-based differences, the editorial column represents a common format worldwide, where such deliberations are not required.
Newspapers’ Editorial Opinions and Partisanship
Newspapers use the distinctive format of an editorial to intervene into politics and to influence public opinion. During elections, newspapers traditionally use their editorial voice to endorse a candidate or party. The endorsement of political candidates is an “integral part of the electoral machinery” (Meltzer, 2007, p. 99) and the bellwether of a newspaper’s partisanship. Endorsements and support for parties are often the culmination of editorial opinions that have been voiced over a prolonged period prior to election periods. Explicit declarations of partisanship are typically made on or around polling day and continue to shape editorial coverage until and unless an organizational decision is made to switch allegiances. It is possible to make observations about the overall political leaning of the national press by combining measurements of partisanship with a newspaper’s share of circulation (Seymour Ure, 1997, 2002; Wring & Deacon, 2010). The strong connection between ownership and partisanship has led to concerns about plurality because of the gradual shift toward a concentration of ownership within many national newspaper systems (Hallock, 2007).
Although editorials routinely engage in debates that encompass a far wider range of political opinions than the formal support of political parties, most studies only use editorials as simple measures of partisanship during election time. Even though newspapers use their editorial voice to opine on a wide range of issues, far fewer studies have measured editorial opinion outside of elections and on topics other than politics. Hallock’s historical analysis of U.S. editorials from the late 1700s to mid-1900s found that editorials were published on a vast range of topics “all in the higher cause of American nationalism and culture” (Hallock, 2007, p. 33). The following selection of studies is referenced to indicate the range of topics newspapers have chosen to take stances on. Content analyses of editorials that go beyond simple measurements of partisanship include one of the first articles to systematically analyze editorial content that looked at the elite orientations of U.K. newspapers (Namenwirth, 1969), specific issues such as vice presidential and presidential campaigns, (Blankenship, Mendez-Mendez, Guen Kang, & Giodano, 1986; Myers, 1982), the deregulation of broadcasting (Pratte & Whiting, 1986), and the Japanese-American relocation during the Second World War in 1942 (Chiasson, 1991). Studies have been made of editorial framing of issues in the U.S. press relating to race (Hannah & Gandy, 2000; Richardson & Lancendorfer, 2004), the war in Afghanistan (Ryan, 2004), and the medical marijuana debate (Golan, 2010). Analyses of the editorial framing of issues in Europe include a seven-country comparison of the communication of the European Union (EU) (Pfetsch, Adam, & Eschner, 2010) and analyses of opinions of the U.K. press toward the EU (Firmstone, 2009, 2016).
Editorials as Texts—Persuasive Style and Content
The persuasive style and content of editorials has been evaluated by scholars to varying degrees of sophistication using a range of analytical approaches including historical, content, framing and discourse analysis. Historical analyses show that the agenda and style of U.S. editorial journalism is “heavy on politics, frequently strong in emotion and language” (Hallock, 2007, p. 41). A U.K. journalist is quoted in Liddle’s historical account as saying “I may now have it now in my power to instil the most pernicious opinions on almost any subject, into the minds of three millions of human beings” (Liddle, 1999, p. 2). Editorial styles in the U.S. press from 1965–1985 showed a trend toward more forceful editorials which “were taking stands, employing opinion or opinion in conjunction with information in their leads and expressing reactions or calls for action in their endings” (Hynds, 1990, p. 311). Editorial journalism demands a distinctive writing style that differs greatly from news reporting. A Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial writer advocated a successful formula to attract readers to editorials: “Report thoroughly, think clearly, write gracefully. Be passionate in your beliefs. Be persuasive in your writing” (Gartner, 2005). In direct contrast to most other forms of journalism, subjectivity and opinion is not only permitted in editorials—it is expected.
Editorials are discursively structured in such a way that makes it possible to identify four key elements of framing, defined by Entman (1993) and Nelson, Clawson, and Oxley (1997): the positions or judgments that newspapers take on issues (position); the way the issue is defined as a problem and the consequences of the problem (problem definition); the agents that are identified as being responsible for or causing the problem (cause); the evaluations that are given for how the problem should be treated or remedied (treatment recommendation). Evaluating editorials in the British press using this method provided evidence that editorials are written to attempt to influence politics either indirectly, through reaching public opinion, or directly, by targeting opinions directly at politicians (Firmstone, 2009, 2007). Another approach based on “political claims-making” (Koopmans & Statham, 1999) treats an editorial as a claim or “an instance of strategic action in the public sphere” and sees editorials as structured around demands addressed to actors or institutions, who are criticized or supported in the interests of an actor in an argumentative framing (Pfetsch, Adam, & Berkel, 2008; Pfetsch et al., 2010). Editorial pages have also been the subject of a number of discourse analyses grounded in the study of linguistics. However, with the exception of Van Dijk, few discourse studies are concerned with the dynamics of editorials as journalism or as indicators of the relationship between the press and politics. Van Dijk established a model of the argumentation style of editorials, showing they are discursively constructed to intervene in public deliberation. Editorials feature three categories: (1) defining and subjectively summarizing the situation, (2) providing an evaluation of the event or issue, (3) concluding with recommendations and expectations for solutions directed at news actors (Van Dijk, 1992, p. 244). Most recently, a “tenacity” scoring system has been developed to measure the attention-seeking features of editorial techniques that are employed to promote editorial opinions beyond the usual text-based editorial columns (Firmstone, 2016, 2017).
What Makes Editorial Journalism Unique?
The norms of professional journalism limit the intentional expression of opinions to a handful of formats published separately from news. These include comment and analysis articles (known as op-eds in the United States), letters to the editor, columns, and editorial articles. Here it is important to make a further distinction beyond the dichotomy of fact-based reporting versus opinion pieces, to explain what makes editorial journalism unique. Editorials are a distinctive format because they are the only place in a newspaper where the views of the newspaper as an organization are represented. In practice, editorials reflect the views of a small and specialist group of journalists who are included in discussions about the newspaper’s editorial line, rather than any kind of consultative process with the whole staff (see “Routines for Issue Selection, Deciding the Agenda, and the Line and Tone of Editorial Opinion”). In addition, editorials are the principal format for the expression of a newspaper’s partisan views. In contrast, opinions in comment and analysis pieces represent the views of individual journalists or guest commentators and fulfill different objectives. Editorials are therefore the most reliable way of measuring the collective opinion of a newspaper as an entity. Understanding the opinions of newspapers as institutions or organizations as distinct from the opinions of individual journalists is considered important by scholars who are interested in the relationship between the press and politics.
Editorials and Other Forms of Opinion Journalism
Editorial journalism can be located as a specific form of journalistic practice by considering its relationship with two other types of opinion journalism: advocacy and campaign journalism. Advocacy journalism encompasses “a broad church of subjective forms of reporting that promote social issues and causes, such as ‘muckraking’, ‘crusading’, ‘alternative’, ‘activist’, ‘peace journalism’, ‘civic’ advocacy journalism and ‘interpretive’ journalism” (Fisher, 2016, p. 714). Some definitions of advocacy journalism also include editorial comment (Anderson, Downie, Jr., & Schudson, 2016). Historical accounts of the development of advocacy journalism describe the introduction of editorials as a distinct format as a response to the need to keep advocacy journalism away from objectivity-driven journalism (Waisbord, 2009). Although editorial journalism can be considered as a specific form of advocacy journalism, it is rarely theorized or empirically researched as such. Historically, editorial and advocacy journalism share an ethos for journalism that endeavors to effect social or political change, yet editorial journalism is distinctive from other advocacy journalism practices in significant ways. Advocacy journalists make choices as individuals to attempt to effect social change on behalf of the causes they support, in contrast to the broader, collective aims of editorial writing. Editorial journalism is the result of a shared decision-making process and reflects the partisanship and position of a newspaper, not those of an individual. Advocacy journalism is adopted by journalists who reject the pursuit of objectivity in news reporting as unrealistic. In the specific role of editorial writing, journalists do not struggle to reconcile the two opposing professional values of gatekeeper and advocate identified by Janowitz in his seminal discussion of advocacy journalism (Janowitz, 1975). The explicit purpose and unique identity of editorial journalism distances it from common critiques of individuals who practice advocacy journalism. In contrast, critiques of editorials focus more on how proprietors and newspapers use editorials to influence public opinion and the political process.
Editorials are an integral part of the campaign journalism practiced by some newspapers. Campaign journalism is distinct from other forms of journalism, including advocacy journalism, because it aims to influence politicians rather than inform voters, and claims to advocate in the interest of the public and/or to represent public opinion (Birks, 2010). Other definitions highlight the close connection between editorial journalism and campaigns in stating that campaigns are a result of a conscious editorial decision on behalf of a newspaper to intervene in policy debates, with the express intention of effecting change (Firmstone, 2008; Howarth, 2012). Campaign journalism typically involves newspapers publishing a series of campaign-branded news articles and editorials over a sustained period of time. As with editorials, the partisan nature of campaign journalism is defended against accusations of bias because it is explicitly labeled as such. It is distinguishable from “straight” news. Editorial journalism can therefore be defined as the practice of journalists who produce editorial articles that represent the collective opinion of a newspaper. This entry focuses narrowly on editorial journalism as distinct from other forms of opinion journalism.
The Significance of Editorial Journalism: Persuasive Power
The significance of editorial journalism is rooted in theories about the democratic role of newspapers and the persuasive power of the news media. Concerns about concentration of ownership, close relationships between proprietors and political elites, and the degree of political parallelism between newspapers and political parties makes newspapers an important focus for anyone interested in the role of the media in democracy. In the context of this potential persuasive power, the content produced by editorial journalists has featured most commonly in political communications research. Rooted in the effects tradition, researchers have attributed an important role to editorials in informing and shaping debate in the public sphere in four ways: (1) as an influence on readers, voters, and/or public opinion; (2) as an influence on the internal news agendas and coverage of newspapers; (3) as an influence on the agendas and coverage in other news media; (4) as an influence on political or policy agendas. Aside from these roles, the field of discourse analysis considers that editorials should be read for signs of their broader political and sociocultural function. Van Dijk argues that analyses of the argumentative structure and strategies in editorials can reveal the underlying ideologies of newspapers and the journalists who write them (Van Dijk, 1992). He sees editorials as “the manifestation of evaluative beliefs of newspaper editors” (Van Dijk, 1995, p. 1).
Despite the heterogeneous nature of journalism, studies of its consequences for the construction of public knowledge and its impact on the political process rarely distinguish between different journalistic roles and news formats. What follows therefore focuses as much as is possible on evidence relating specifically to editorial journalism, but necessarily refers to political journalism more broadly at times.
Influence on Readers, Voters, and Public Opinion
Newspapers make their own decisions on what issues should be selected for debate and provide their own opinion in editorials. They are not required to report on the agendas and opinions of other actors, as in news reports. By selecting and presenting issues according to their own agenda, newspapers are able to take on an active role in public deliberations of political issues. McCombs states, “Resting on the assumption that the news media are a special kind of public institution – an institution that represents the public interest vis-à-vis the government – investigative reporting and editorial campaigns actively seek to move issues onto the public agenda” (McCombs, 1997, p. 438).
The question of whether and how newspapers’ editorial opinions influence public opinion is complex and contentious. As with the broader question of media influence and the effects tradition, researchers have struggled to find methods and contexts that can conclusively prove a causal relationship (McDonald Ladd & Lenz, 2009). Research design and methodological limitations mean that interpreting the relationship between newspapers’ political opinions and those of its readers is problematic. Only a small body of research has narrowed the search for media effects to exploring the relationship between editorials and public opinion. This research concentrates on editorial coverage during elections and more specifically on the relationship between editorial endorsements of parties or candidates and voting behavior. It is also highly concentrated on the U.S. media and on “quality” papers. The evidence is mixed (McDonald Ladd & Lenz, 2009). Some have found that endorsements have little or no effect (Norris, 1999), and others suggest they only affect readers who are less engaged in politics (Hagen & Jamieson, 2000). Such findings are in line with overall thinking, which attributes a greater influence to the media when readers are not well informed about an issue (see Iyengar, 1991; Kahneman & Tversky, 1984; Zaller, 1992; Zucker, 1978).
In a study that claimed to overcome the multiple methodological problems that limit the strength of previous findings, McDonald Ladd and Lenz (2009) profess to provide “rare evidence that the news media exert a strong influence on mass political behavior” (McDonald Ladd & Lenz, 2009, p. 405). Examining U.K. newspaper coverage at a time when several newspapers uncharacteristically switched their partisanship (1997), they found a persuasive effect of endorsements and slant on between 10% and 25% of readers. Two studies of senatorial campaigns in the United States claim similarly strong evidence of the effects of editorial endorsements on readers (Druckman & Parkin, 2005; Kahn & Kenney, 2002). Endorsements affect citizens’ preferences, particularly those who read daily, and incumbent candidates supported by editorial coverage were more successful than non-endorsed candidates with readers (Kahn & Kenney, 2002). Although they caution that their findings may not be generalizable, Druckman and Parkin (2005) found “concrete evidence that relative editorial slant can influence voters” (Druckman & Parkin, 2005, p. 1047).
Outside the effects tradition, very little is known about the readership of editorials. Prior to the ability to measure audience metrics digitally, the industry relied on surveys to measure the popularity of editorials and the demographics of their readership. In the 1990s, these indicated that editorial pages were popular and read by over 60% of newspaper readers (Hallock, 2007). It is claimed that editorials are most popular with older readers and elites (Hallock, 2007), which confirms their potential to influence policymakers and elites. Others admit that editorial “influence is difficult to document” (Hynds, 1990, p. 441). Having outlined how editorials influence readers, we now consider two main ways that editorial opinion can exert an influence beyond its readers: intra-media and inter-media agenda setting.
Influence on Newspapers’ Internal News Agendas and Other Coverage
It has long been argued that, regardless of whether or not the relationship is intentional, the editorial column sets the tone for the rest of the newspaper (Page, 1996b; Rowse, 1957). Interviews with journalists indicate that journalists’ production of news is shaped by positions and opinions given in their newspaper’s editorials (Baisnée, 2002; Firmstone, 2009; Morgan, 1995). Only a handful of scholars have analyzed content to explore the relationship, known as intra-media agenda setting, between editorial views and news coverage within the same newspaper (Kahn & Kenney, 2002).
The search for similarities in agendas and tone or slant relates to two concerns. The first of these is that opinion and/or bias seeps into other areas of newspaper coverage that, depending on journalistic norms, are expected to be objective and impartial. If the press claims to be an objective source of straight information, then any straying into bias is seen as problematic (Druckman & Parkin, 2005). Several studies in the United States provide strong evidence that coverage of electoral campaigns, including the tone, the level of criticism, and support for candidates, is affected by editorial positions (Druckman & Parkin, 2005; Kahn & Kenney, 2002). In contrast to the overt bias associated with European press journalism, readers of the U.S. press expect news coverage to be impartial and free from opinion. Based on claims that voters are influenced by coverage about electoral candidates, concerns have been raised about the potential effect of “hidden bias” in coverage that reflects the editorial positions of newspapers (Kahn & Kenney, 2002).
The second area of research critiquing the influence of editorial opinion on news coverage extends these concerns to the principle of internal plurality. Although newspapers in the United States are permitted to provide an opinion in editorials, professional norms expect the rest of the newspaper to display a plurality of voices and views. Several studies demonstrate that op-eds replicate the opinions offered in editorials (Golan & Lukito, 2015). The concern is that such mimicry reinforces the editorial views of the newspaper rather than providing readers with a diversity of opinions. Homogeneity in the views and opinions offered within a newspaper prevents readers accessing the information necessary for them to consider an issue from a variety of perspectives. This limits the potential for op-eds to perform a democratic role. The separation of fact from opinion is less formalized in the European press, with a “blurry” line between editorials and news during elections (McDonald Ladd & Lenz, 2009). Such blurring of boundaries is, however, contentious. For example, a recent analysis showed a strong relationship between newspapers’ opinions and critical news reports about the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn during the 2017 U.K. election. Claiming that the “clear distinction between comment, conjecture and fact” required by the IPSO editorial guidelines had been ignored, the study concluded that the British press acted in “radical insularity . . . for the ethical, political and social responsibilities of journalists in a democracy” (Cammaerts, Decillia, & Magalhães, 2018).
The Influence of Editorials on Other News Media, Political Elites, and Policymakers
A less direct yet important way that editorial opinions influence debate in the public sphere is when issues or opinions from editorials feature in the coverage of other news media. Advancing the original theory of agenda setting, inter-media agenda setting refers to the influence that newspapers can have beyond their own readers by shaping the agenda of other media outlets (McCombs, 2005). Although they rarely distinguish between editorial and news content, studies of press agendas describe inter-media agenda setting operating in two ways that are applicable to editorials.
First, journalists at rival news organizations take newspapers’ agendas as cues for story selection. Using one another as sources, the news media literally “look over their shoulders” at one another (McCombs, 2004). Studies grounded in this comparatively under-researched branch of agenda setting have consistently identified a strong relationship between issues covered by newspapers and the news agendas of television and radio news (Golan, 2006). The influence of newspapers on television news agendas is stronger than the other way around (Golan, 2006; Vliegenthart & Walgrave, 2008). In specific relation to opinion, given the open partisanship of the U.K. press, the inter-media agenda-setting power of newspapers, particularly broadsheets, amplifies their opinion-leading role (Cushion, Kilby, Thomas, Morani, & Sambrook, 2018). Interviews with journalists confirm that they are motivated to write editorials in response to editorials published by other newspapers (Firmstone, 2008).
Second, the reach of editorial opinions is expanded when other news outlets, particularly radio and TV news, repeat newspaper coverage in special features where broadcast journalists review the day’s newspapers. An overarching reason to be concerned about the relationship between editorials and other news is that it might allow partisanship to seep into coverage that would otherwise be impartial. This is particularly the case in the United Kingdom, where a reliance on, or repetition of, coverage from the disproportionately right-wing U.K. press is thought to threaten the impartiality of broadcast news, with clear “ideological implications” (Cushion et al., 2018; Renton & Scholsberg, 2017).
The fourth and final influence ascribed to editorials relates to elite opinion. According to British journalists, politicians monitor editorials and sometimes contact journalists about the opinions voiced in them (Firmstone, 2008). Although the fact that newspapers’ comments are “received” by political actors does not establish that newspapers influence the actions of policymakers, it suggests that newspapers’ editorial agendas are “heard” by key influencers. Writing about news in general, scholars have long claimed that newspapers play a role as opinion leaders for politicians and political elites, and are influential because they are used by politicians as an indicator of public opinion (Cohen, 1983; Linsky, 1986).
Newspapers as Independent Political Actors
Although theories of the power of the press have paid limited attention to the specific function of editorial opinion, a relatively new strand of research in political communication illustrates the significance of newspapers’ editorial opinions. Highlighting the persuasive and evaluative functions of the media, scholars have recently drawn attention to the independent role of newspapers in providing opinion and pushing issues onto the agenda (Gurevitch & Blumler, 1990; Eilders, 1997, 2000, 2002; Firmstone, 2008, 2016; McCombs, 1997, Page, 1996a; Pfetsch et al., 2010; Price, 1992; Statham, 2007). Eilders argues that through interpretative, evaluative, and potentially persuasive content, the media provide orientation to the process of opinion formation by making judgments regarding policy, political actors, and political decisions (Eilders, 2000). Scholars suggest that newspapers should be considered as independent political actors who can legitimately use their right to express their view in the public sphere to pursue their own political interests and goals.
In a seminal article, Page suggests that questions regarding “what kinds of media act in this way, under what circumstances, and concerning what issues” remain unanswered (Page, 1996a, p. 23). Theorizing newspapers as active and independent political actors in the political process through their editorial role underpins the need to further research editorial journalism to address questions about the issues newspapers choose to present as important, how newspapers present their evaluation of issues, and what influences newspapers’ opinions.
What Shapes Newspapers’ Editorial Positions?
Despite the potentially powerful influence of editorial journalism on public opinion and the democratic process, sociological research into the factors that influence newspapers’ editorial opinions remains scarce (Firmstone, 2008). For example, much critique of the opinion-leading role of the British Eurosceptic press is based on suppositions deduced from the content of news coverage and tends to point to the fairly obvious input of proprietors as the most significant determinants of such coverage (Firmstone, 2008). Studies of journalism to date provide little empirical evidence relating to the specialist journalistic activity of producing editorial opinion. Organizational studies of journalism have concentrated on front-line reporters, with the result that little is known about the interactions between editorial and higher level journalists (Firmstone, 2009; Reese, 1991; Schudson, 2000). Although scholars have established that news values are a central organizing concept of news production routines (Galtung & Ruge, 1965; Harcup & O’Neill, 2017) and professional journalistic roles (Hallin & Mancini, 2004; Tumber & Prentoulis, 2005), they have not yet investigated the concepts that shape the routine production of editorial content. Similarly, organizational policies are known to play an important role in shaping news reporting (Gans, 1979; Soloski, 1989), but we have little understanding of how journalists interpret editorial policies in relation to editorial journalism. These gaps have only been partially addressed by a handful of relatively recent empirical studies using interviews with editorial journalists in the United Kingdom (Firmstone, 2007, 2008, 2009) and the United States (Hallock, 2007), a comparative study based on interviews with a range of journalists including leader writers in seven European countries (Statham, 2007), and an ethnography of U.S. editorial boards (Meltzer, 2007). Some of the most important questions asked about editorial journalism relate to the factors that shape editorial opinions. Price suggests that the “activist role of the media, especially newspapers, ensures continuing concern over possible biases in news and editorial practices, owing to the political leanings of network executives, publishers, producers, or rank-and-file journalists” (Price, 1992, p. 82).
Routines for Issue Selection, Deciding the Agenda, and the Line and Tone of Editorial Opinion
In contrast to news values, very little is known about the selection criteria routinely applied in editorial journalism. A sociological analysis of editorial journalism in the United Kingdom identified four editorial values that guided the selection of issues for comment: (1) assessment of news values (topicality), (2) level of editorial importance, (3) impact on readers and the United Kingdom, and (4) salience in the wider media debate (Firmstone, 2008, 2009). Judgments regarding the topicality of an issue are based on common journalistic perceptions of news values. The level of editorial importance of an issue is determined by four organizational specific circumstances: (1) the collective interest of the leader-writing group, (2) the interests of individual journalists within the group, (3) the interests of the editor, and (4) editorial policies such as relationship to the paper’s marketing strategy and campaigning policies. This leads us to the organizational structures of editorial journalism.
Day-to-day decisions about issue selection and the line to be taken are made at daily meetings known as leader conferences in the United Kingdom and editorial boards in the United States. The practice of editorial writing has evolved from being the domain of a single owner or an individual journalist who wrote everything in a very small paper to the current situation where opinions are reached by consensus in editorials boards (Hallock, 2007). Editorial boards, which include the editor, publisher, and other newspaper executives, discuss and debate issues in daily meetings until a consensus representing the institutional agenda of the paper is reached. Although the editor makes the final decision, decisions are reached through a consultative process in the leader conference at the vast majority of British newspapers. However, there are significant variations between national newspapers in terms of how well defined and known the “line” of a newspaper is on any given issue, how democratic the collective editorial decision-making process is, and consensus on the issue within the team (Firmstone, 2008).
Partisanship as expressed in editorials—specifically, support for parties at election time—is strongly dependent on historical ties to political parties and traditional alignments. It is rare for newspapers to break with tradition to declare support for a different political party. Newspapers base editorial positions regarding social and political issues on their traditional partisan stance, but some questions about contentious topics that cause division within political parties require internal debate (Firmstone, 2008; Funt, 2017). For example, debates over Britain’s membership of the EU did not fall neatly into the traditional partisan divisions of left and right. Many editorial boards deliberated about endorsing Donald Trump despite their historical Republican allegiances (Funt, 2017).
The Influence of Proprietors, Ownership, and Editors
A contested point is the extent to which editorial columns represent the voice of a newspaper in the interests of its readers or whether this public voice is expressed more in the interests of the proprietor and/or individual journalists (including editors) who wish to influence readers or political elites. The evidence suggests a mixed picture, with owners and proprietors having a strong influence over the direction of partisanship, but less impact on how that opinion is expressed. The most significant changes in the direction of newspapers’ editorial lines and partisanship usually occur as a result of a change in ownership. However, a change in ownership does not always result in changes to the editorial policy of the paper, especially when such changes may alienate readers. Editorials at newspapers serving local communities in the United States were described as serving a community’s conscience by setting its priorities and serving as a community sounding board (Hallock, 2007). In some cases, specifically the contentious issue of the EU, the editorial importance of an issue to a newspaper was seen to override considerations of the perceived level of interest among readers (Firmstone, 2009). Candidate endorsements may reflect the opinion of the proprietor, whether an individual or a corporate entity, the editor, an individual editorial writer, or a collective decision of an editorial board (Firmstone, 2008; Funt, 2017). Journalists admit that proprietors often take an interest in editorial opinions, but they commonly report that such influence never results in significant changes to the overall message of an editorial (Firmstone, 2008; Funt, 2017). Much research in the 1980s in North America centered on concerns that the increasing concentration of ownership of newspapers by corporate “chains” would lead to a reduced diversity of editorial opinions and to less vigorously politically engaged editorials because of fears about offending readers and advertisers (Demers, 1996, 1998; Lacy, 1991; Thrift, 1977). This so-called editorial vigor hypothesis was largely disproved with studies finding no relationship between editorial page content and chain ownership (Demers, 1996, p. 870).
A study of the influential role of other factors on opinion, such as individuals and the implications of organizational routines, has questioned the accuracy of assuming that the editorial opinions of the British press are simply explained by the influence of proprietors (Firmstone, 2008). Aside from decisions about the overall position of a newspaper, proprietorial influence is minimal and does not account for the way that editorials are written. For instance, the study found no evidence of any direct influence of proprietors in the selection of issues for comment, the range of issues commented on, and the way in which issues were framed nationally or otherwise. On the specific topic of Europe, Statham’s comparative study concluded that, with the exception of one paper in the United Kingdom, journalists did not consider the political stance of proprietors to be more of a consideration when commenting on Europe than when commenting on other issues (Statham, 2007, p. 470). Key journalists at some newspapers may have an equal or greater influence on editorial opinions than proprietors (Firmstone, 2008). Certainly, in the day-to-day production of opinion, individual journalists have greater opportunities to directly shape newspapers’ opinions than is attributed to them by studies of news production. Although news production studies see individuals as “replaceable cogs in the wheel” and suggest that “news changes very little when the individuals who make it are changed” (Golding & Elliot, 1979, p. 209), the opposite is true of editorial journalism (Firmstone, 2008). Moreover, in cases where newspapers’ attempts to influence are part of focused editorial campaigns, individual journalists can be pivotal in formulating the subject and the style of campaigning policy (Firmstone, 2008). With specific regard to the influence of editors, a content analysis of editorials at one U.S. newspaper under three different editors concluded that “the geographical and persuasive positions of a newspaper’s editorials change considerably with each new editor, even though subject areas from editor to editor may receive the same priority” (Windhauser, Norton, & Rhodes, 1983, p. 583).
Editorial Journalism and Diversity
Although there are few studies that consider the backgrounds of editorial writers separately from other journalists, there are strong indications that editorial journalism lacks diversity and gender equality. The anonymous nature of editorial columns (in most countries) removes the possibility of attributing gender, or indeed any other individual trait. All editorial journalists interviewed for a study of the British national press were male, white, and predominantly senior (Firmstone, 2008, 2009). Editorial boards in the United States are male dominated, with few coming from ethnic minority backgrounds (Harp, Bachmann, & Locke, 2014), and have been described as “cantankerous males of fairly mature years” (Duff, 2008, p. 232). Given that the personal attitudes and values of journalists significantly influence newspapers’ opinion leading (Firmstone, 2008), it is concerning that editorial journalism is a male-dominated domain. In a discourse analysis of editorials about race, Van Dijk argued that the dominance of white, male, middle-class leader writers results in the reproduction and legitimization of their dominance of in society (Van Dijk, 1992).
Discussion of the Literature
As is clear from this entry, the investigation of editorial journalism as a distinctive practice has been largely overlooked and conflated with broader studies of news and journalism. In the historiography of research about editorials, relatively small pockets of research have focused on the editorial function of newspapers along three parallel trajectories. First, based on the assumptions of media effects theories about the potential consequences of editorials for public knowledge and democratic processes, research has been heavily skewed toward measurements and analyses of the content of editorial articles. Within this trajectory, there has been a strong contribution from political communications scholars on the effects of editorial endorsements of candidates and parties at election time. Although editorials routinely engage in debates that encompass a far wider range of political and social issues, far fewer studies have analyzed editorial opinion outside of election periods.
Ongoing normative questions about the role and performance of the press have also motivated research that analyzes content to evaluate the relationship between editorial opinion, bias, and objective reporting. A second content trajectory rooted in the tradition of discourse analysis has singled out editorial articles as having a unique argumentation structure Van Dijk (1992). The majority of discourse studies have analyzed the language and semantics of editorials with the aim of understanding the way a specific issue has been communicated. Others have analyzed the structure of editorials as a text and as a series of interactions between the writer and the reader (Bolívar, 1994), as an assessment of the rhetorical structure. See Le (2010) for a useful overview of linguistic studies. Third, a relatively small body of journalism studies research has focused on the routines, practices, and role orientations of editorial journalists and newspaper editorial boards. It is notable that, with two exceptions (Firmstone, 2008, 2009; Hallock, 2007), empirical analyses have analyzed either editorial content or investigated editorial practices, not both. Perhaps more importantly, aside from attempts to measure the relationship between readership of specific newspapers and voting preferences, the audiences of editorials have been entirely neglected. In addition to scholarly approaches, insights into the world of editorial journalism from the perspective of industry commentators and in the memoirs of veteran editorial journalists also provide valuable understanding (Funt, 2017; Gartner, 2005; Hynds, 1990, 1995).
Despite following different trajectories, existing research arrives at a shared point of departure for the future. Editorial journalism as a distinct and potentially powerful genre and practice merits far more attention than it has received to date. In particular, theorizing newspapers as active and independent political actors underpins the need for further research into editorial journalism (Firmstone, 2009). In addition, sociological research including ethnography, interviews, and participant observation is needed to find out more about the practice of editorial journalism and influences on editorial opinions (Firmstone, 2008). More qualitative research is needed to look beyond newspapers’ editorial agendas and the salience of issues in order to understand the decisions behind such choices. Understanding is severely limited to the U.S. context. Future research must expand our understanding of editorial journalism into different journalistic cultures and media systems, and perhaps most urgently, pursue a de-Westernization agenda.
Finally, the rise of online news media requires a broadening of the current research agenda in three main directions. First, editorial opinion emerged as a specific role assumed by newspapers in the media systems of liberal democracies. Its practice continues to be shaped by this history as well as regulatory contexts. Professional norms and regulations for the relationship between editorial opinion and news at net native news organizations are under development. Future research should shine light on how net native news organizations and regulatory policies develop in response to age-old questions about objectivity, bias, and partisanship. Second, as has already begun, inter-media agenda-setting studies should expand to include the relationship between newspapers’ editorial opinions and news in the networked news media ecology. Early research suggests that partisan online media may be replacing newspapers as agenda setters for the mainstream media (Meraz, 2011), with others finding a continuing dominance of mainstream media (Rogstad, 2016; Sjøvaag, Stavelin, Karlsson, & Kammer, 2018). Third, the digital flattening out of the once distinctive physical geographies used to separate fact from opinion in newspapers raises a host of questions about how the opinion-leading role of legacy newspapers will operate in future online news environments.
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1. Note that the details about specific countries were obtained from a quick survey of academic colleagues around the world rather than substantial research so should be treated as indicative rather than decisive. These initial insights into country level variations are intended to show that editorial practices are far from uniform.