Perspective: How well can you tell fact from opinion?

Pew study shows America struggles with context

Tim Wenger
June 19, 2018 - 9:15 pm

AP Photo


Buffalo, N.Y. (WBEN) - Are you having a difficult time distinguishing between fact and opinion in our rapidly moving media environment?    Well, you're certainly not alone.   And it's not really a surprise to me.

A new study out from the Pew Research Center indicates that our ability to distinguish between fact and opinion is at about the same percentage as a 'random guess'.   This, in my opinion here, is just as much the fault of the receiver as it is the source.

Let's first take a look at the findings from Pew.  Here's what they're releasing from their extensive study:

The new Pew Research Center survey of 5,035 U.S. adults examines a basic step in that process: whether members of the public can recognize news as factual – something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence – or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.

The findings from the survey, conducted between Feb. 22 and March 8, 2018, reveal that even this basic task presents a challenge. The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong. Even more revealing is that certain Americans do far better at parsing through this content than others. Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion.

For example, 36% of Americans with high levels of political awareness (those who are knowledgeable about politics and regularly get political news) correctly identified all five factual news statements, compared with about half as many (17%) of those with low political awareness. Similarly, 44% of the very digitally savvy (those who are highly confident in using digital devices and regularly use the internet) identified all five opinion statements correctly versus 21% of those who are not as technologically savvy. And though political awareness and digital savviness are related to education in predictable ways, these relationships persist even when accounting for an individual’s education level.

Trust in those who do the reporting also matters in how that statement is interpreted. Almost four-in-ten Americans who have a lot of trust in the information from national news organizations (39%) correctly identified all five factual statements, compared with 18% of those who have not much or no trust. However, one other trait related to news habits – the public’s level of interest in news – does not show much difference.

Now, back to my opinion.

Not a day goes by when I don't converse with a listener of WBEN who complains about "bias in the news".  And when I probe a little and ask where they heard the bias, it's most often from someone like Rush Limbaugh, Sandy beach, Tom Bauerle, David Bellavia or Sean Hannity.   None of those names are charged with offering news and news alone.  They opinionate and comment on the news.  They do offer a lot of credible information along the way, but they also have the freedom to offer their 'take' on the news.

And I can certainly see how that can lead to some of the confusion that this Pew survey is revealing.  We all move so quickly in life these days, we hear things in passing and not always in their full context.  And when we hear them, we often make assumptions that they're presented as "news' or "fact".   Assumptions are dangerous.

I think there's a lot of truth to the Pew Research study that points to confusion and a blurry line between news and opinion.  And I think it's the responsibility of media outlets to be blatantly clear in their presentation of news and commentary.  I also think it's incumbent of us all to also not make assumptions as consumers of media.

Watch CNN, for example.  Anderson Cooper is an anchor.  As an anchor, we assume what he presents is unbiased and factual.  But if you spend any amount of time watching CNN you need to understand that the anchors and hosts of the news programming on CNN have been given a leeway that blurs the lines in a dangerous way.  CNN is not alone in that regard, of course, and it's as prevalent on FOX News and MSNBC to name a couple more.

I'm a firm believer that "knowledge is power".  And I also think perspective is just as powerful.  And I, for one, like to hear from numerous perspectives to make my own judgements on what's happening in the world.  I'm not afraid to hear from opinions I don't agree with.  I welcome it.  It challenges me.  

I think we're at a time and place in a world that moves at lightning speed that the media owes it to the consumer to be clear in its presentation and purpose.  And I think it's equally important that the consumer not jump to conclusions based on hearing something in passing, out of context or from a source whose job it is to opinionate and not necessarily inform.

So, let's be careful out there.





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