How does the Guardian help digital readers distinguish analysis from news? | Elisabeth Ribbans

There are many distinct strands to the unique tapestry of journalism. Among those that may most easily come to mind are news, opinions, reviews, interviews, and long or short reports.

In the middle of these first two – between pure news and personal opinion – is analysis. Most often written by a journalist who specializes in their subject, these articles are commissioned not to report the news but to explain it. The change of Prime Minister in the UK this week caused a flurry.

But over the past fortnight, regular visitors to the Guardian’s website may have noticed that these articles have a striking new design and clear labeling. The change stems from reader feedback – or more accurately, from reader misunderstanding. Here’s why.

Analysis has many aspects of its own, but it generally looks behind an event or issue, providing insight and interpretation; it is a textured assessment and can also draw conclusions. Analysis has a voice, but it is usually not a voice that rises up in rebuke or applause. This is an “author” article but not a polemic, as one editor put it.

Not so long ago, digital readers must have largely had a hunch that they were considering this kind of journalism from the written tone. Otherwise, it appeared on the same pattern as the news stories – the only distinction being a thin ruler below the title bridges, reflecting a printed design feature that was, as the signals say, subtle.

Tone, it must be said, is generally considered a reliable guide to content; the writing does not always need a label to announce itself, if the language, style and construction make the proposition clear. Some might consider it the “duck test”.

But just because something can be inferred doesn’t mean it can’t be made explicit. The busy reader, the new reader, or the reader who has come across a piece from another part of the web, then need not pause to deduce whether the duck is in fact another type of bird. There is, after all, no moment of ambiguity in the printed newspaper, where the analysis stands as a clearly labeled and distinctively styled companion to the adjacent news.

Analysis, and its close cousin the “explainer”, which really came into its own during the Covid pandemic, matters more than ever to make sense of the world in times of crisis and uncertainty, and one and the other were particularly indispensable during the war in Ukraine.

In its Digital News Report 2022, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggested that the media should do more explaining and Q&A, especially for young readers who may access information “in a more fragmented way , which means people sometimes miss key context that was previously neatly packed into linear narratives by mainstream media.”

But sometimes the analysis and explanations have provided questions rather than answers, with readers surprised to find someone they know to be a “journalist” offering an assessment or characterization, or making “no attempt to get a response from the government.

In November 2020, I provided the following feedback to editors: “The Readers’ Editorial Office appears to be dealing with an increasing number of complaints about analytical articles that are presented – as far as the reader is concerned – as I don’t know if the number of these plays increases in proportion to the mix, or if there’s just an increased reader sensitivity to it.

The editors recognized the problem and, as a precautionary measure, decided to preface the articles (subtitles) with “Analysis”. It was simple and efficient (although it relied on someone remembering to add the word manually) but intended only as a temporary solution.

Now, a complete overhaul has taken place, borrowing elements from the two pillars between which the analysis sits. Like the opinion pages, these articles are distinguished from the news by a tinted background – in this case pale pink – and bear the author’s signature in large italic type. But they retain the signaling colors of the section to which they relate, e.g. red for news, blue for sport, etc. More importantly, they – and the explainers – are prominently labeled. The change applies retrospectively, so – frankly – you may find older articles that have the clarity of presentation that they originally lacked.

Owen Gibson, deputy editor of the Guardian, who oversaw the changes, calls analysis one of the paper’s “great strengths”.

“We know our readers appreciate the expertise and lightly worn knowledge that our trusted experts and journalists can provide. In the midst of a rapidly evolving news cycle of increasingly confusing complex issues, the ability to pause and make sense of them for our readers is even more important,” he said. “But in a digital, disaggregated world, we risked turning a positive into a negative by not framing them clearly enough for readers to know what to expect. Hopefully these changes address that, as part of an effort wider to innovate in the way we project and present our digital journalism with different designs and formats.

In my opinion, the designers have skillfully signaled analytical journalism so that it no longer stands out only at first glance from what it is not, but has a positive identity of its own. It’s your perspective that matters, however, and your feedback is always welcome.

Slideshow Captions

Another remedy for a regular complaint is worth mentioning here. Readers have often told us they are bothered by the lack of image captions in the “slideshows” sometimes seen on the front of the website – those that scroll above and accompany the live blog or other major news. We took their side but explained that it was a technical constraint.

But following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, images of a war zone needing context have caused serious concern. A reader emailed Feb. 28: “I see a photo today of uniformed personnel pointing a gun at a person lying face down with their arms outstretched… are the uniformed personnel Russian? Ukrainians? Is the person on the ground Ukrainian? I have no idea what I’m seeing…the photos evoke a kind of vague emotion, but we don’t know how to interpret what we see.

The necessary development work was done in early March, and since then there should be no photos without captions on slide carousels, or for that matter on any article pages.

  • Elisabeth Ribbans is the Global Readers’ Editor of The Guardian and Observer. She can be contacted at this email address

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at [email protected]