And this is why so many Americans have lost confidence in the mainstream media.
Pew has done a survey in which it asked respondents to identify statements of fact versus statements of opinion. It is interesting – and for us old-timers, yes, somewhat alarming – to see how many of the respondents were unable to correctly identify the statements as to whether they were about facts, or about opinions.
Regarding one of the fact statements, that’s not actually as straightforward as it sounds. To assess it “correctly,” you have to know what the study means by posing it, and be certain of the answer the study is looking for, even though there’s a strong argument that it’s not really a statement of fact. The writers of the study don’t seem to understand that, which is a separate but closely related issue. We’ll get to it in a minute.
Regarding the study results, they certainly appear dismal. They appear dismal, that is, if you don’t read past the mainstream media headlines, or go to the original source. Look at what widely-used news service Reuters reported, as posted at Yahoo! News under the headline “Pew survey: Americans grapple with recognizing facts in news stories”:
Only a quarter of U.S. adults in a recent survey could fully identify factual statements — as opposed to opinion — in news stories, the Pew Research Center found in a study released on Monday.
Sounds bad. It turns out that this is what it actually means (emphasis added):
Americans are more likely than not to correctly distinguish factual statements from opinions, suggesting they have some proficiency in understanding the type of news content they see. …
Overall, Americans were reasonably adept at identifying each of the five factual and five opinion statements. For each statement, a majority correctly identified it as either factual or opinion. However, Americans tended to better identify some statements than others.
In other words, most people (more than 70%) identified most of the statements correctly. Some people got a lot of the statements wrong (couldn’t distinguish fact from opinion). Some people got a few of them wrong. And about a quarter of respondents got all of the statements “right,” according to the survey’s reckoning.
Is that as bad as the MSM headline and opening statement would have led you to believe? For the record, that’s a question of opinion.
But people are not only entitled to make decisions based on their “opinion” answers to that last question; they are psychologically structured to. There is no such thing as making decisions based solely on questions of “fact.” When people make decisions, they are always acting from motives both fact-driven and opinion-driven.
Distinguishing between fact and opinion is a fourth-grade-level skill. Recognizing that both quantities are always at work in our thinking and decision-making, and judging what the wisest interplay is in a given situation, is the work of a lifetime.
If I decide to be leery of the mainstream media, because it frames headlines and opening statements to inject biased subtext into its presentation of facts, I am most certainly acting on an opinion I have formed.
But there’s nothing wrong with that. The situation is sub-optimal, but my decision given the conditions is the one that makes the most sense.
Now, two other points from the survey. First, look at this section from the Pew survey write-up.
It seems to suggest that Republicans are particularly affected by being told Fox News is the source of a statement.
But the body of the text (and a look at the actual numbers in the graphic) reveals that Democrats are even more affected by being told Fox News is the source. (The comparison basis for that statement is between performance when there is no news source given, and performance when the source is said to be Fox News.)
The favorable effect on Republicans is 3 percentage points, in terms of correctly identifying statements of fact.
The unfavorable effect on Democrats is 4 percentage points, in terms of correctly identifying statements of fact.
Now, remember that the task here is to correctly distinguish whether a statement is about facts or not. The differences are not that significant between Democrats and Republicans. But the Republicans’ ability to identify a factual statement is actually better overall than Democrats’.
Democrats’ ability to identify a factual statement suffers when they’re told it comes from Fox News. They get more answers wrong.
Republicans show the opposite effect. Even more importantly, nothing stands out as causing Republicans to get more answers wrong.
Which is better? (Class, what kind of question is that? Hint: three syllables, starts with “O.”)
The presentation in the survey write-up highlights the effect of stated news-sourcing on Republicans, implying that it is a singular effect. The presentation arguably hints that this is an important finding, specific to Republicans, in terms of our expectations about public dialogue and shared understanding.
Why do you think the information was presented in just that way?
Here is the statement I mentioned at the beginning, which Pew presents as a statement about fact (independently of whether one agrees with it, which is how we’re going to treat it here):
Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have some rights under the Constitution.
Now, I agree with the intended central proposition of the statement, “Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have some rights under the Constitution.”
I don’t dispute that proposition, although I do dispute the wording. It is not a fact that a migrant who is in the U.S. illegally is an “immigrant.” That is an opinion about what the word “immigrant” means, and one over which there is legitimate dispute. Burying opinion-premises in the wording of statements puts us immediately on the road away from neutral “fact.”
But if we concentrate on the point that all human beings in the U.S., whether here legally or illegally, have some rights under the Constitution, I agree without reservation.
However, that doesn’t make the statement a statement about fact. It makes it a generally-accepted statement about what we see rights as being, in a philosophical sense, and how we see our Constitution.
The factual point here is not whether people “have rights”; it’s whether we have common agreement on that matter, in a particular instance.
Rights are an issue of moral agreement. They are great “shoulds,” and we do well to enforce them, if we have agreed on them carefully. Our Founders decided to go with a very short list of rights they could derive from the provisions and nature of God.
But rights are not and never will be merely empirical facts, like whether ISIS lost territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017, or whether Obama was born in the United States.
The same is true of our interpretation of law and its meaning. The history of lawmaking and jurisprudence in the United States actually demonstrates clearly that the meaning of law can be held to change over time. That doesn’t mean it should be so held. But empirically, it has been held to change over time. It has also been held by the people to be changeable, in the sense that we can change our minds about it and vote differently over time.
Our perspective on the proposition that “Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have some rights under the Constitution” is built on axioms, not on observation – which means that the proposition, sound though it is when defined correctly, is not a statement of fact. It’s a moral statement of philosophy and intention.
I know the answer the Pew survey was looking for, so of course I got it “right.” But that’s because I am extremely familiar with the pattern in our public information space of elided, simplistic thinking about what a “fact” is.
Glossing over that elision and simplism is increasingly destructive to public dialogue. It opens the door wide to Trojan horses by which opinion-premises are infiltrated as “facts” – to the detriment of understanding about how humans live together in peace.
We don’t enjoy the benefits of rights because they are non-debatable “facts,” or because our Constitution has magical powers. We enjoy the benefits of rights because we cultivate the moral determination to recognize and protect them. That’s all about axioms, opinion, and suasion. You can’t build and keep a rights-protecting society by fudging what rights are, or what it takes to keep them.
Yet too often, the mainstream media – and many advocates and activists – want to end debate on disputable policy issues by framing axioms or biased wording about them as “facts.” When we see that happening right before our eyes, the people lose confidence that the media are dealing in good faith.
Exit point: speaking of “facts,” and whether the American people know how to identify statements about them, tell me whether this is a statement of fact, or opinion:
A human being with male DNA is a male.
If you cannot identify this as a statement of fact – whether you agree with it or not – you’re not in a position to judge whether other people can correctly identify statements of any kind.