Q: Are pundits journalists?

Credit: Politico.com

A:The short answer is: It depends. Pundit is a fancy word for what many people would call a “talking head.” According to Merriam Webster, the word is derived from the Sanskrit word “pandrita,” which means learned. English speakers began using the word in the late 1600s to refer to a wise person, and it took on the meaning of expert in the 19th century. Fast forward to today, and pundit has a more negative connotation because it applies to all those people on cable news and talk radio spewing their opinions. Like Rush Limbaugh or Van Jones.

Pundits are supposed to be experts on a topic (that’s often up for debate) who are invited to share their opinions with the audience. They make a living by talking or writing about those opinions. Political pundits are in high demand right now in the run-up to the 2020 election, but there are pundits who are experts on everything from sports (Dan Patrick), to finance (Suze Orman) , entertainment (Roger Ebert before he died) and fashion (Tom and Lorenzo). The key difference between them and journalists is that journalists are not supposed to share their opinions with the audience, unless, and this is a big caveat,  they are opinion journalists.

So what’s the difference between opinion journalists and pundits?

Opinion journalists are bound by the three distinguishing characteristics of journalism known as VIA: Verification, independence and accountability. When an opinion journalist shares an opinion, it is based in fact. It may be a one-sided argument, but it is still grounded in evidence or data that have been verified. Opinion journalists maintain their independence and remain free from outside influences, and they are accountable for what they say or write and correct mistakes. Their work is also clearly labeled as “Commentary” or “Opinion” or “Review,” so the audience knows it’s not news reporting. 

On the other hand, pundits who are not journalists can say whatever they please. Their opinions don’t need to be based in fact. They can share anything that pops into their heads. And they do. Often, the more controversial, unfiltered, and uncensored, the better. (Of course, there are pundits who take greater care with what they say than others.) Pundits can be aligned with a political candidate or even be paid as a spokesperson for a group, though any such relationships should always be disclosed. They are not responsible for correcting their mistakes and sometimes even intentionally misinform the audience to persuade people to adopt a particular opinion or point of view. 

Indeed, pundits generally have self-selecting audiences, or fans even, who seek them out to confirm their own beliefs, however ungrounded in facts they might be. Punditry serves to “validate” their beliefs, which is very different from verification. This is why pundits can have so much power in the media; the more forceful their convictions, the more people who implicitly agree with those opinions flock to them, thereby cementing their influence.

Here’s the complicated part: Sometimes the lines blur without warning, and journalists start sounding like pundits. This happens all the time on morning news programs, local news and cable television during what’s known as “crosstalk” when the anchors and reporters comment a story and offer their personal take. It’s usually a brief aside, and then it’s back to reporting the news, but it’s fraught with danger of what we call “foot-in-mouth” disease in the broadcast business. Here’s a cringeworthy example of a reporter offering his opinion after a report about President Trump crashing a wedding in Staten Island. 

Credit: Twitter

Journalists also turn into pundits on the Sunday morning political shows like Meet the Press that include roundtables to discuss the week’s top stories. Although they spend their workweek reporting the news, many relish the opportunity to weigh in with their opinions.

But what you need to know as a news consumer is this:  when journalists cross over from the news side to the freewheeling world of opinion, they are still obligated to follow the rules of verification, independence and accountability. And pundits are not.