Critical Thinking about the News

Can you tell the difference between a fact and an opinion? What about between real news and fake news?

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinRebecca Joy Norlander
Jul 15, 2018

Facts & Opinions

A Pew Research Center report found that most Americans did only slightly better than chance at distinguishing between factual and opinion statements. As they define these terms, a factual statement is “capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence” while an opinion “reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.”

The questions prompted respondents not to consider accuracy or agreement, but the results demonstrate that agreement colors our thinking. Members of both major political parties are more likely to identify statements that agree with their party line as facts, and those that do not match their party values as opinions. Very few people identified a statement as factual and said it was inaccurate, while a greater mix of people disagreed with statements they identified as opinions.

In addition to party affiliation and values, we also wondered if and how people are using word choice to tell the difference between fact and opinion statements. The statements, like many we see in newsfeeds, provide some clear linguistic cues. Statements of relative size (“Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget”) or cost (“Health care costs per person in the U.S. are the highest in the developed world”) can be proved or disproved. So can preterite verbs, which describe events that took place in the past (“ISIS lost a significant portion of its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017”). Meanwhile, value judgments (“Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S. economy.”) cannot be proven. Modal verbs that communicate necessity, like should and must, are often dead giveaways for opinion statements. So are subjective adjectives like important and problematic, which indicate priorities.

Real News & Fake News

We first learned about Factitious – a game that challenges you to identify real news from fake and helps you learn how to tell the difference – from our partners at the American Library Association. Their initiative, Media Literacy @ Your Library, addresses a critical need for library professionals to be trained in media literacy so that they can, in turn, develop effective programs and services for their communities.

The key to determining if news is real or fake – at least if you’re playing Factitious – is to look carefully at the source. If you know the source and recognize it as credible – if it’s a major news organization, for instance – then you can safely assume that it’s providing real news. Whereas if you don’t know the source, you’ll need to look for further clues. Some sites will make it clear on their “About” page that they are providing parody news, while others simply don’t specify.

The next step is to verify: if other sources don’t have a similar story, it’s probably not real.

We’re researchers, and we like to think we can’t be fooled. But even those of us who do this for a living are far from exempt, as another recent report – this one from Stanford University – reminds us. In a series of tests, professional fact-checkers beat out professional historians by a long shot.

Two Tactics

Professional historians typically judged a source’s credibility by source-internal cues. They considered the URL, the logo, and internal consistency. The authors of the study termed this tactic “reading vertically.” While vertical reading is consistent with most media literacy training available today, it is not the most successful approach.

Professional fact-checkers, on the other hand, read laterally: they searched for corroboration elsewhere, assessing the reliability of those external sources as they went.

As the reports’ authors note (all emphasis in original):

“Paradoxically, a key feature of lateral reading is not reading. Efficient searchers intelligently ignore massive amounts of irrelevant (or less crucial) text when making an informed judgment about the trustworthiness of digital information. But lateral reading doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It requires knowledge of sources, knowledge of how the Internet and searches are structured, and knowledge of strategies to make searching and navigating effective.”

News and media literacy is not a new challenge, although the deluge of information now available has made it feel ever more urgent. While there’s no silver bullet for identifying accuracy and reliability in sources, paying attention to these skills can help make us all better news consumers. New interventions give us some additional hope: one recent study showed that expert ratings of the overall reliability of news outlets may help to combat misinformation.

Let us know

How do you decide if a statement is an opinion or a fact? Have you played Factitious? What did you discover? Have you ever been tricked by a source you thought was trustworthy and later found out was not?

Join the Conversation
What did you think of this? How did you use it? Is there something else we should be thinking of?
Support research that has a real world impact.