Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Americans have a slippery grasp of fact and opinion, and that's not all their fault. News outlets should self-examine.

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
Professor, School of Journalism and Media, University of Kentucky

The latest Pew Research Center poll has troubling findings for American democracy and journalists who try to serve it: Many if most Americans have trouble telling the difference between fact and opinion. The survey of 5,035 adults, taken Feb. 22 through March 8, presented them with five statements and asked them to identify each as fact or opinion. The results were not encouraging.

"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," Pew reports. "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 Pew researchers write, "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 news and the country’s heightened political divisiveness, the ability and motivation to quickly sort news correctly is all the more critical." The poll found that people who identify with the major political parties tend to identify a statement as factual when it favors their side.

The study found that people tend to disagree with factual statements that they incorrectly label as an expression of opinion. The full report has a list of the statements, the responses to each, and the methodology of the study.

In another part of the study, respondents were shown statements attributed to one of three news outlets: "One with a left-leaning audience (The New York Times), one with a right-leaning audience (Fox News Channel) and one with a more mixed audience (USA Today)," Pew reports. "Overall, attributing the statements to news outlets had a limited impact on statement classification, except for one case: Republicans were modestly more likely than Democrats to accurately classify the three factual statements in this second set when they were attributed to Fox."

What does this study have to say to local news organizations? More than you might think. The last two years have shown that the opinions of readers, viewers and listeners about their local news outlets has been influenced by the increasingly partisan and polarized atmosphere of national politics. Most of the criticism of the news media comes from President Trump and Republicans, but those on the left also criticize national media outlets for pro-corporate bias and cashing in on Trump.

Perhaps the main lesson of this study is that news outlets need to do a better job of separating, or at least differentiating, fact fact from opinion. It may not be enough for a newspaper to signal, with the writer's photo and "columnist" in small type, that the piece is an expression of opinion. And maybe such columns should be reserved for a particular place on the printed page -- the far-left or far-right column -- or reserved for the editorial spread or web page.

There's an old saying: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” There’s plenty of room in that aphorism to fool a large percentage people a very large percentage of the time, and we now have people making millions of dollars and gaining high office by doing just that. People want entertainment more than knowledge, and the digital explosion has fed that appetite. But the devolution began well before digital, as Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote recently.

Oh, and there’s no proof Abraham Lincoln ever said that aphorism. Fake news isn’t new.  Maybe a good daily feature for a newspaper or TV station would be “Really Fake News,” regularly exploding myths new and old. Journalism has to do something to get its authority back. It could start with regaining its moral authority, but too many of its big paymasters stand in the way. As the network bosses have said, President Trump is good for their business. Local news organizations do better, but they should try to do even better, to earn and keep the trust of their audiences. That's good journalism, and good business.

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