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posted: 6/19/2014 1:01 AM

The useful distinction between analysis, opinion

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Is there a difference between analysis and opinion?

Yes, there is, and it's an important distinction for news consumers to think about. A good place to start the reflection this week would be with Suburban Tax Watchdog Jake Griffin's examination Wednesday of the workings of the Local Government Distributive Fund in Illinois.

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The LGDF is our state's process for returning to municipalities some of the income taxes collected by the state. Many municipal leaders trace its roots to the debate over property tax relief, assigning its origins to lawmakers' desires to help local communities resist the pressure to increase property taxes by returning to them some of the income taxes their citizens pay.

As Griffin showed, that is not an entirely egalitarian process. True, money is returned to municipalities as a fixed amount per resident. But it is collected in the first place based on the wealth of individual taxpayers. Thus, towns with higher-wage earners like Oak Brook, Barrington, Libertyville or Arlington Heights receive less than 5 percent of what their citizens paid in while less-affluent communities like parts of Aurora, Bensenville, Carpentersville or Waukegan receive returns in the double figures -- as much as 25 percent in rare instances.

Is this practice good or bad? The answer to that question is an opinion, and yours may depend on how you read the numbers, how you define the purpose of taxation, how you evaluate fairness as it applies to taxation and many other factors. But the analysis -- the simple collection and presentation of the facts -- stops short of that point. You would be hard pressed to determine Griffin's personal opinion about the value or merits of the LGDF process from Wednesday's story. Indeed, he includes in his reporting reflections from people who take vastly divergent positions.

This kind of distinction isn't always so clear, however. Although the practice was much more common in the 1970s and '80s, news organizations attempting to approach sensitive or complex topics with deeper refection or depth sometimes find themselves in an uncomfortably gray area between pure objective reporting and promotion of a particular point of view that can only be reconciled by declaring a particular piece to be "analysis" rather than direct reporting.

More often nowadays, we strive to keep that kind of reflection on the editorial page, where -- witness at least three different takes on Eric Cantor's primary loss in the last two days -- it is obvious that how various writers analyze the same set of facts may well depend on their fundamental political and social ideals.

But, in any of various forms analysis reporting can appear anywhere in the paper or, especially, on the web. When you see it, it's useful to remember that it clearly falls somewhere in between the two poles of pure opinion and strict fact. Sometimes, its purpose may be to advance a particular agenda, pushing it toward the "opinion" end of the spectrum. But done well and properly, like Griffin's story this week, its greatest value is less in its potential to change your mind about a topic than in its presentation of facts and ideas that help you more clearly understand the topic, leaving the final analysis is up to you.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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