The Pew Research Center tested how well people can separate fact from opinion statements. The results aren’t surprising.

Communication & Psychology Theory

Have you ever been baffled when someone has clung to a belief despite clear evidence to the contrary? You might have noticed their mental strain, as they process the conflicting information and ultimately choose to reject it.

That’s called cognitive dissonance and it’s having a huge impact on how people read and evaluate the news.

“The politically aware, digitally savvy and those more trusting of the news media fare better; Republicans and Democrats both influenced by political appeal of statements”

From Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News at Journalism.org

For the study,  people were asked to evaluate sample news statements and categorize them as “opinion” or “fact.” Tasks like this are straightforward if you have exposure to basic critical thinking tasks, like looking for signals of opinion. Words like “should” or subjective rankings “best” and “worst,” tip off the reader that a statement is evaluating something, not just stating facts. 

However, the study found that people often struggled to correctly identify statements when they aligned with their political ideology.

The Study

The researchers wanted to test how well people could separate factual statements from statements of opinion. For the purpose of the study, researchers defined factual and opinion statements according to accepted critical thinking criteria. 

  • A factual statement was one that the participants thought that the statement could be proved or disproved based on objective evidence.
  • An opinion statement was one that could not be proved or disproved with evidence. Instead it reflects the views of the source.

Within this particular study, participants were not expected to know whether the statement was accurate or not. Just whether the statement presented fact or opinion.

“A 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.”

From Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News at Journalism.org
How the study asked Americans to classify factual versus opinion-based news statements

To start, they asked people to classify factual versus opinion-based news statements. In the first set, participants reviewed five factual statements, five opinion statements and two that were “borderline.” All of the statements that were written “factually” were also accurate. All of the statements were related to policy issues or current events. They also evenly represented both political right and political left ideology.

After participants answered this question, they needed to answer two more questions. If they picked “factual,” they chose whether the information was accurate or inaccurate. If they chose “opinion”, they had to state whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement. You can take a similar, shorter quiz at Pew Research Center’s website.

Results

“Overall, Americans identified more statements correctly than incorrectly, but sizable portions got most wrong.”

From Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News at Journalism.org

Factual Statements

  • 26%) correctly identified all five of the factual statements
  • 28% got no more than two correct
  • 46% answered three or four correctly
  • 72% got more correct than incorrect by classifying at least three as factual

Opinion Statements

  • 35% correctly identified all five of the opinion statements than did so with the factual statements
  • 43% answered three or four correctly
  • 22% misinterpreted most of the opinion statements as factual, classifying two or fewer as opinion
  • 78% correctly classified at least three of the five as opinions

Borderline Statements

  • 52% said both were opinions
  • 11% who said both were factual statements
  • 35% said one was factual and the other was opinion

“The ability to classify statements as factual or opinion varies widely based on political awareness, digital savviness and trust in news media.”

From Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News at Journalism.org

They also followed up on the study by adding additional variables, like branding statements for specific news outlets. This article, however, is focusing on the aspect of cognitive dissonance in relation to identifying factual statements.

Republicans and Democrats more likely to see factual and opinion news statements as factual when they favor their side

A Flood of Information

If you find the results a little unsettling, you are not alone. With the current state of distrust in the media, but a weird willingness to accept unfounded, sourceless fringe information, journalists are struggling to relay important information to the masses. 

Cognitive dissonance is defined as the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes. It’s stressful because your mind is struggling to reconcile new information with previously held ideas. 

Leon Festinger, who initially proposed the concept of cognitive dissonance, developed the theory as part of his study on a doomsday cult. The original research is fascinating. The group centered on a belief that the world would end with an apocalyptic flood on a specific date. When the flood did not occur, many of the cult members not only stayed in the cult but also, had a stronger faith. Most went so far as to say that the prophecy was real but their actions had circumvented the situation. 

This concept has been applied to everything from behavioral therapy (like why people smoke when they know about lung cancer), to the implications for social psychology. 

When faced with the results of this study, one thing becomes obvious: many people think truth is relative. Facts are not just up for debate – they simply don’t matter. What matters is what people want to believe. They start with their framework and reject information that doesn’t fit. Likewise, they uncritically accept information that folds into their worldview, regardless of the accuracy.

This explains the people who turn their nose up at a well-researched, strongly sourced study for a poorly-photoshopped meme. The facts don’t matter — their predispositions override everything.

Change Your Mind

The evidence seems to indicate that this behavior can be offset by a few factors. Americans with high levels of political awareness performed better than those with less awareness. Similarly, those who were confident using digital devices and use the internet regularly performed better than those who were uncomfortable with technology. Finally, people who trusted national news organizations (more than just news interest) performed better than those with low trust. 

“At this point, then, the U.S. is not completely detached from what is factual and what is not. But with the vast majority of Americans getting at least some news online, gaps across population groups in the ability to sort news correctly raise caution. Amid the massive array of content that flows through the digital space hourly, the brief dips into and out of the news and the country’s heightened political divisiveness, the ability and motivation to quickly sort news correctly is all the more critical.”

From Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News at Journalism.org

Discerning content consumers can take several actions to help them evaluate information. First, you should look at how the statement triggers their preconceived ideas. If you feel any kind of mental stress (anger, worry, confusion, etc.) at the information presented, ask yourself why it upsets you. For example, it’s often hard to believe that our celebrity idols did something wrong. 

Second, make an effort to educate yourself on how to distinguish fact from opinion. Most of the time you can start with the basic question, “Can this be proved?” Additionally, you read up on logical fallacies and the tenets of good journalism. 

Finally, you can train yourself to spot fake news, identify editorials (as opposed to news reporting), and learn how to distinguish sources. 

With these tools, anyone can take charge of how their interpret and evaluate information in the flood of content that streams before our eyes each day. 

Continue the Conversation

If you’d like to continue the conversation, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a note in the comments or get in touch with me on my Instagram

If you’re interested in viewing the original study, you can access it and the researcher’s overview through the link below.

Additional Reading

Mitchell, A., Gottfried, J., Barthel, M., Sumida, N., Mitchell, A., Gottfried, J., . . . Sumida, N. (2018, June 28). Can Americans Tell Factual From Opinion Statements in the News? Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/2018/06/18/distinguishing-between-factual-and-opinion-statements-in-the-news/

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