With one of their latest surveys, the Pew Research Center set out to discover “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.”
What they uncovered is troubling.
The sad reality is that many American adults have a hard time distinguishing between facts and opinions.
Between February 22 and March 8 of this year, the Pew Research Center surveyed 5,035 adults.
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.
The study also looked at whether or not political affiliation plays a role in how people interact with information. What Pew uncovered is that if the information matches the individuals own political bias, regardless of political affiliation, that individual was more likely to view it as a fact rather than an opinion — even if it is an opinion. In other words, most of us are choosing to hear and believe what we want.
For example, the factual statement “President Barack Obama was born in the United States” – one that may be perceived as more congenial to the political left and less so to the political right. Nearly nine-in-ten Democrats (89%) correctly identified it as a factual statement, compared with 63% of Republicans. On the other hand, almost four-in-ten Democrats (37%) incorrectly classified the left-appealing opinion statement “Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S. economy” as factual, compared with about half as many Republicans (17%).
An interesting note in the study is that Republicans were more likely to correctly identify factual statements when the statements were attributed to FOX News. By way of contrast, “Members of the two parties were as likely as each other to correctly classify the factual statements when no source was attributed or when USA Today or The New York Times was attributed.”
Not surprisingly, when they incorrectly identified a statement as factual, the vast majority of respondents said they agreed with the statement. Likewise, when they incorrectly identified a statement as opinion, the majority of respondents said that they disagreed with the statement.
One thing that we can all take away from this survey is that more of us need to work harder at identifying facts versus opinions.