A young boy finds a tree full of bright red apples near his home. Hungry, he picks one and eats it, then grabs another to bring his mother. When he makes it back to his house, he shows his mother the apple. “No thanks,” she says. “I prefer red apples.”
Perplexed, the boy informs his mother about the apples on the tree and the one he ate himself, insisting that they were red. His mother, shaking her head, says “No. Sweetheart, those are Granny Smith apples. You’re color blind.”
If no one else enters the conversation, no third person to observe the apple, we have two truths in this story. The boy’s lived experience tells him there’s a tree full of red apples nearby but his mother, trusting her own eyesight, insists that all of the apples must be green. The boy may be color blind, but does that matter? He sees red. How can he know what to believe?
When it comes to Americans and the news, the majority of us are no better than the little boy and the apple. Our problem, however, is not an inability to see, but an inability to discern.
A Pew Research Center study conducted in late February and early March of this year found that most Americans can correctly identify factual statements at a rate “only a little better than random guesses,” according to a summary of the study.
The “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News” survey examines the ways in which Americans analyze statements to determine what is and is not true. The survey of more than 5,000 U.S. adults presented five factual and five opinion statements and asked respondents to identify which were factual and which were opinionated. The results revealed that politics, trust in news media and digital savviness all played a role in the accuracy with which people identified facts over opinions.
“A majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set,” the summary states. “But… far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.”
This should not be surprising. Think about the way people speak when they argue: “Hillary Clinton belongs in prison!” “Donald Trump is an idiot!” “LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time!” Though all opinion statements, the wording of each phrase and the confidence with which the phrase may be said would suggest otherwise.
A “fact” is defined as something that has actual existence, or an actual occurrence, while an “opinion” is a view, judgment or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter, according to Merriam-Webster.
In the news media, the separation of fact and opinion is like that of church and state (or, perhaps, like the latter should be). Most newspapers clearly label sections with factual, objective information “news,” while sections containing letters to the editor, columns, editorials and other op-ed content are labeled “opinion.” Another word commonly used to identify opinion-based content is “editorial.”
When the majority of people get their news and information from the internet – a place where facts, opinions and falsities co-exist almost seamlessly – it’s important to have a population of people capable of distinguishing truth for themselves. According to the Pew study, “36 percent of Americans with high levels of political awareness (those who are knowledgeable about politics and regularly consume political news) correctly identified all five factual news statements, compared with about half as many (17 percent) of those with low political awareness.
“Similarly, 44 percent 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 percent of those who are not as technologically savvy.” Though political awareness and digital savviness are related to education, the study found “these relationships persist even when accounting for an individual’s education level.”
The summary goes on to state that trust in the news media, or those reporting the information, also matters in how a statement is interpreted. “Almost four in 10 Americans who have a lot of trust in the information from national news organizations (39 percent) correctly identified all five factual statements, compared with 18 percent of those who have not much or no trust,” the summary states.
Party identification also plays a role, the study found. Both Democrats and Republicans were more likely to label both factual and opinion statements as factual when they appealed more to their political ideology.
The study also showed that when respondents incorrectly classified factual statements as opinions, “they most often disagreed with the statement.” When respondents identified a statement as factual, they “overwhelmingly” also believed it to be accurate, the summary states. “This is true for both statements they correctly and incorrectly identified as factual.”
To illustrate, the statement “all milk is pink” is a verifiable assertion, but it is inaccurate (as anyone who’s seen milk would confirm). If the statement were “all milk is delicious,” then it would be an opinion, incapable of being proven right or wrong.
Remember, we’re talking about the ability to discern fact, or proven truth, from opinion, an idea or a feeling with no evidence to back it up. The results of the Pew study are likely the tip of the iceberg in the analysis of the way Americans approach truth but so far, we should all be pretty concerned.
Respondents in the survey were more likely to identify “all milk is pink” as accurate if they identified it as a fact, and were more likely to identify it as such if the idea that milk is pink aligned with their political preferences. Do you see any problem with that?