How Well Can People Discern Fact from Opinion?

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These days, there is no shortage of news sources. Twitter, Facebook, online news sites, blogs, television, and even two-and-a-half-minute radio spots that play on KAMU every Wednesday—all are potential sources of information.

How, though, do people sift through what is fact and what is opinion? The Pew Research organization recently explored this topic in greater depth and also examined how individual differences were associated with people’s discernment.

The researchers leading the project collected data from over 5,000 US adults. They presented the participants with 10 headlines, five of which were fact and the other five were opinion.

Results indicated that people were pretty poor at differentiating between the two. Only 26 percent of all participants correctly identified all five factual statements, and 35 percent correctly identified all five opinion statements.

People’s political beliefs also influenced their ratings. This was the same for Republicans and Democrats. The more the statement aligned with their political ideology, the more likely people were to consider it a fact.

For example, 9 in 10 Democrats correctly identified the statement, “President Barack Obama was born in the United States,” as factual—a figure far higher than the 63 percent of Republicans who did so.

On the other hand, Democrats were over two times more likely than Republicans to consider the following statement as factual, “Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S. economy.” In fact, the statement is opinion.

Results point to the need for people to critically analyze the messages they read, especially when they align with their political attitudes.