OPINION: It struck me last week that there seem to be a large number of people that don’t seem to understand what an opinion is. Maybe I’m old-school, but there is a very specific and easily explained difference between an opinion, a belief and a controversial issue. Justine Cullinan does some heavy-lifting on the subject.
A controversial issue is any concept, theme or story that provokes a debate or elicits responses from different people that conflict with each other. A few examples of controversial issues include gun control, abortion, the death penalty, the way in which any number of presidents control the countries they govern and whether or not the rules of the roads in Johannesburg should apply to taxi drivers.
As you were reading those examples I have no doubt that you felt strongly about them. That’s because you have developed an opinion based on facts you have gathered, or as an extension of a particular belief you have. Now this is where it gets a bit tricky. An opinion is a preference for, or more forcefully, a judgement you are making on something. A few examples of opinions then are ‘iPhones have the best operating system of any smartphone’, ‘Game of Thrones is an awesome TV show’, ‘Katy Perry can’t sing to save her life’, ‘the Springboks deserve to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup’ and ‘Robert Mugabe should not be in power any longer’.
These opinions may have a lot of relevance for a lot of people, they may be very widely held, but that does not mean they are true. They have no basis in fact at all. They are merely beliefs that a person or many people may have. A belief is actually just a state of mind which causes the holder of the belief to think that something is the case. There is no empirical evidence to actually prove it with any certainty.
Hopefully, if I’m passionate about the opinion I hold I will have sourced evidence to support it. I must, however, accept that someone else can put their own opinion and its corresponding evidence on the table; that’s where the debate happens.
Now there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion. Voicing our opinions and entering into debate with people is one of those enormously valued and awesome things about living in a free country with freedom of speech. Debating differences in opinion is how we learn things, how we evolve our ideas and how we come to embrace new ways of thinking. This is all fabulous stuff.
But there is something deeply wrong in collapsing an opinion and truth into a single thing. It is factually true that leaves are green because of their chlorophyll content, that one in three marriages end in divorce and that being an organ donor can save someone’s life. It is my personal opinion that having lots of leafy plants in my garden keeps me calm, that my marriage will never end in divorce because I’m so clever for choosing an awesome husband and that donating your organs is a generous and sensible thing to do especially because when you are dead you certainly don’t need your organs anymore.
Now media professionals have a hard task when it comes to controversial issues and their own opinions. A media professional may feel VERY strongly that South Africa should embrace abortion legally; however he or she cannot state this as a fact through the media platform they are employed to work for. IF the media professional wants to discuss abortion, then thorough research needs to be embarked on to present valid and factually supported viewpoints from both sides of the opinion line. This is what we mean by ‘balance’ in journalism. It means the facts are presented, as are the opinions, from both sides so that the audience can make up their own minds and form worthy opinions.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the purpose of the media.
1) To inform and educate people so that they can develop opinions supported by facts rather than beliefs.
2) To entertain people so that they feel like they are part of a community of shared insights, ideas and understandings.
3) To use content to build audiences that can be delivered to advertisers.
The job of the media is not to provide a platform for a media professional to deliver their own personal opinion at the expense of all facts or opposing viewpoints. The job is a lot harder than that.
When you say “this is my opinion”, that doesn’t mean that what will follow is correct. Just because you have a view on something, doesn’t make it right. If opinions were truth then that would imply that Muslims are terrorists, women can’t drive and everyone who lives in Paris buys a baguette every time they go grocery shopping. Challenging an opinion isn’t an attack on beliefs, it’s an opportunity to make your opinions more robust or to learn something new. Don’t get offended.