Idea or Opinion? Should New Media Make a New Distinction?

Old media separated non-entertainment journalism into a simple dichotomy: news and opinion. Today we – academics, journalists, and laypersons – include internet searches at some point in the research process. Should new media now distinguish idea from opinion work?

The first two senses of “idea” according to are:

  1. any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity;
  2. a thought, conception, or notion.

An opinion, on the other hand, is a belief, judgment, or point of view. According to traditional media, anything not a reporting of events was labeled “opinion” to emphasize that “news” journalism was objective, based on hard facts that all would agree comprise “the truth of the matter.”

We are no longer so naive. The sophisticated 21st Century reader (post-modernist or not) knows that what’s news to one outlet is gossip to another, publicity stunt to a third. If news is now taken as inherently subjective – or at least inter-subjective – what’s the difference between idea and opinion?

Firstly, ideas can “do” things; they’re useful. Opinions do only as much as the person or group professing them. Ideas can help make sense of happenings in the world around us. They put apparent chaos into meaningful order. Opinions only tell us how a particular person (or group) evaluates those events. But ideas also create; they’re generative. They can go beyond the present to future possibilities. Opinions cannot.

Secondly, opinions and ideas differ in form. The form of an idea is usually a concept. An opinion is a valuation. Of course any ordering, like that coming from an idea, contains implicit judgments; but an idea is already something – a “social fact” – that other people can use. The order arising from an idea is a “thing” even if it originates in a mind. An opinion is merely a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on what already existed or what was created by someone else.

Thirdly, an idea is open to interpretation, analysis, synthesis, or reuse by someone other than its originator. An idea can be combined and developed into a new idea or can serve as the basis of a new opinion. An opinion always remains the work of its confessor. It can be repeated or mimicked but not reused or reinvented by another.

Lastly, an idea and an opinion have different shelf lives. The first lasts as long as people find it useful – sometimes centuries or millennia. The second lasts so long as its advocate is trustworthy. An idea can combine with other ideas to create a system or tool to be used again and again. An opinion can only tell us where a person (or group) stands with respect to other people.

In our new media – where articles are archived forever on an instantly accessible world-wide web – we should look for, and begin labeling, some work “idea journalism.” At any rate, that’s my opinion.