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A paper on difference between opinion and truth

By Drew DeSilver News consumers today are confronted with a tangle of statements and assertions that run the gamut from purely factual to purely opinion.

  • Generally speaking, Americans overwhelmingly consider statements they classify as factual to also be accurate;
  • In other words, an opinion is an inconclusive statement, used in subjective matters, which cannot be proved true or false;
  • Most respondents could correctly classify a majority of the statements, but far fewer could classify all of them correctly, and people with certain characteristics did far better at parsing through this content than others;
  • Opinion is only a choice while fact is the worthy;
  • All of the factual statements were accurate.

Being able to quickly tell where a news statement fits on that spectrum is key to being an informed reader or viewer. But how good are Americans at distinguishing factual news statements from opinions?

Q&A: Telling the difference between factual and opinion statements in the news

For us, this raises questions about how well the public is equipped to parse through news in the current environment. And so we studied a basic step in that process: When getting their news these days, Americans need to quickly decide how to understand news-related statements that can come in snippets or with little or no context.

But what we were focusing on in this study was whether news-related statements are factual, meaning they can be proved — or disproved — based on objective evidence. We were interested in assessing a fundamental skill: We conducted extensive pretesting before launching the actual survey to ensure that our respondents understood what we were looking for. We tested variations on the language used in the question instructions, the wording of the response options and the number of response options.

All of that testing let us see how each variation performed, and it gave the respondents a chance to provide any feedback they may have had. Borderline statements live in a murky space between factual and opinion statements. The borderline statements we included in the study have both factual and opinion elements: For example, one of our borderline statements was this: We felt it was important a paper on difference between opinion and truth explore how Americans classify this type of statement because, these days, not all news statements are unambiguously factual or opinion.

Did you draw the statements you used in the study from actual news stories or write them yourself? We wrote our own statements to resemble content you would see in news articles. We also used individual statements rather than full articles to more closely resemble the process of scanning through news and having to make quick judgments.

The material we used in the factual statements was drawn from a variety of sources, including news organizations, government sources, research organizations and fact-checking entities; all of these statements were accurate.

  1. A factual statement, regardless of whether it was accurate or inaccurate. We were interested in assessing a fundamental skill.
  2. In other words, they were to choose this classification if they thought that the statement could be proved or disproved based on objective evidence. The fact is what all believe to be true, while the opinion is believed to be true only by those who state it.
  3. The fact is what exists and opinion is just only an opinion and nothing else.

The opinion statements were largely adapted from existing public opinion surveys. Did you consider including some inaccurate factual statements in your study? If so, why did you decide not to do so?

  • Facts explain what actually happened;
  • That said, they are still somewhat revisionist:

We wanted to keep the focus of the study on exploring what can be proved or disproved. What do you make of that? Generally speaking, Americans overwhelmingly consider statements they classify as factual to also be accurate. For example, one of our statements was: So this study also provides some evidence that Americans can see statements in the news as both factual and inaccurate.

A statement was considered to appeal to the left or the right if it lent support to political views held by more people on one side of the ideological spectrum than the other. We used various sources to determine the appeal of each statement, including recent polling data, remarks by elected officials and news articles. Overall, what we saw in our findings was that members of each party were more likely to classify a statement as factual when it appealed to their side — and this happened whether the statement was factual or opinion.

What, to you, is the most important or unexpected finding of the study?

Difference Between Fact and Opinion

One especially salient finding is that the basic task of differentiating between factual and opinion news statements presents somewhat of a challenge to Americans. Most respondents could correctly classify a majority of the statements, but far fewer could classify all of them correctly, and people with certain characteristics did far better at parsing through this content than others.

For example, people with high political awareness and those who are very digitally savvy or place high levels of trust in the news media were better able than others to accurately classify the statements.