(CN) – In a media study where a quarter of participants struggled to separate fact and opinion, researchers found that making the distinction came easier to those who are politically informed, tech-savvy and trusting of national news outlets.
“Overall, Americans have some ability to separate what is factual from what is opinion, but the gaps across population groups raise caution, especially given all we know about news consumers’ tendency to feel worn out by the amount of news there is these days, and to dip briefly into and out of news rather than engage deeply with it,” Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center, said in a statement Monday announcing the study.
Jim Boren, executive director of the brand-new Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust, said in a phone interview Tuesday he was troubled but not surprised by the results of the study.
“I think that in this tech-saturated world, for the average news consumer — it’s become very complicated to sort out media,” he said. “Not just fact and opinion, but what is trustworthy media. And it’s difficult for them to keep up.”
The study had U.S. adults determine whether each of 10 statements was an opinion statement that reflected the opinion of whoever wrote it or a factual statement — meaning that it could be “proved or disproved by objective evidence.”
A “factual statement,” for the purposes of the survey, is different than a fact, which is indisputably true. (Take a sample quiz on Pew’s website.)
Even where statements were opinions rather than factual, the study found that Republicans and Democrats both showed an inclination to label such statements as factual when the statements aligned with their political beliefs.
The statement “President Barack Obama was born in the United States,” for example, was judged as factual by almost 9 in 10 Democrats and just over 6 in 10 Republicans.
But 37 percent of Democrats thought “Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S. economy” was a factual statement, compared with just 17 percent of Republicans.
“I think confirmation bias is front and center in everything we do online,” Peter Adams, senior vice president for educational programs at the nonprofit News Literacy Project, said in a phone interview.
“We tend to actively seek to affirm our biases and search for sources until we get one telling us what we want, whether it’s correct or not,” Adams added.
Boren made a similar point, highlighting what he called “journalism of affirmation.”
“Check your biases,” he said. “We only look for information that affirms our political beliefs. And that’s too bad, because I think that not only divides us as a nation but it also shuts out a whole point of view that will make us smarter and understand the issue in much more depth.”
The source of the news might also have something to do with a consumer’s ability to parse it, according to the study. For example, when factual statements in the study were attributed to Fox News, Republicans were 8 percent more likely than Democrats to accurately classify them. And though the Pew study didn’t include television news, Boren said it’s an important factor.
“Cable news in many ways has complicated the issue by mixing fact and opinion,” he said. “When people see talking heads on cable news, they assume that’s news.”
A Gallup poll earlier this year found that 66 percent of Americans think the blame lies with content producers — that the news media doesn’t do a good job separating news from opinion. Just 33 percent in that study viewed the news media favorably.
Boren and Adams both said the news media was partly to blame and could take steps to address the issues raised by the Gallup and Pew studies.
“I think in a lot of ways this trust issue is because media haven’t been all that transparent,” Boren said. “We don’t spend time explaining how we gather news.”
Adams said he thinks there’s a lot journalists can do, but recognized this need comes at a time when resources are dwindling.
“I think explaining things more clearly, labeling things more clearly,” would be helpful, as would transparency when it comes to sourcing, he said.
The ability to distinguish between a factual and opinion statement is just one early step in being an informed news consumer, but the study did not extend to the likelihood of people checking facts for accuracy or where they might go to verify that information.
People like Adams and Boren work in that area, helping journalists and news consumers understand each other better. Adams believes news literacy education is vital for all American children, starting in elementary school.
He also said it’s important among older generations, who would be less connected to the technology boom of the last two decades.
“I think digitally savvy folks are skeptical,” Adams said, “but I think older generations sort of have that tendency to sort of assume there’s a gatekeeper there.”
Boren, former executive editor of The Fresno Bee, said anyone working toward news literacy has a challenging task ahead.
“People are busy,” Boren said. “That’s probably the toughest thing.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated on June 19, 2018, to include insights from Jim Boren at Fresno State and Peter Adams with the News Literacy Project. The News Literacy Project has collaborated in the past with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a nonprofit where Courthouse News reporter Amanda Ottaway worked from 2013-16.