Robert Cox

Writing on the Wall

Robert Cox is a reporter and page designer for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CCNnews@cox-internet.com.


Separation of fact and opinion

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

I read an interesting piece not too long ago regarding a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

An article written by Jeffrey Gottfried and Elizabeth Grieco analyzed the information collected by the study, which indicated that young people had an easier time telling the difference between factual statements and opinion.

The information was collected as part of a survey of 5,035 American adults which asked respondents to classify 10 statements as either factual statements or statements of opinion.

As found in a previous study, 74 percent of those surveyed were unable to accurately classify all five factual statements and 65 percent were unable to classify all five opinion statements.

But here’s the kicker. The new report showed that younger adults had a much easier time making the distinction between fact and opinion.

According to the report, nearly a third of 18- to 49-year-olds (32 percent) were able to correctly identify all five of the factual statements as factual, compared with two in 10 among those ages 50 and older.

As for the opinion statements, 44 percent of 18- to 49-year-olds correctly identified all five opinion statements as such. Among those ages 50 and older, only 26 percent were able to do the same.

In addition, the report reads, “younger adults were not only better overall at correctly identifying factual and opinion news statements — they could do so regardless of the ideological appeal of the statements.”

What that means is that some of the statements, both factual and opinionated, were more attractive to either liberal or conservative mindsets.

“For example, 63 percent of 18- to 49-year-olds correctly identified the following factual statement, one which was deemed to appeal more to the right: ‘Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget,’ ” the report stated. “About half of those aged 50 and older (51 percent) correctly classified the same statement. Additionally, 18- to 49-year-olds were 12 percentage points more likely than those at least 50 years of age (60 percent vs. 48 percent, respectively) to correctly categorize the following factual statement, which was deemed to be more appealing to the ideological left: ‘Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have some rights under the Constitution.’ ”

As we all should know, just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not true.

“Among the opinion statements,” the report read, “roughly three-quarters of 18- to 49-year-olds (77 percent) correctly identified the following opinion statement, one that appeals more to the ideological right — ‘Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient’ — compared with about two-thirds of older Americans (65 percent). “And younger Americans were slightly more likely than older adults (82 vs. 78 percent, respectively) to correctly categorize this opinion statement, one appealing more to the left: ‘Abortion should be legal in most cases.’ ”

The report went on to suggest that the younger adults’ better ability to classify statements regardless of “ideological appeal” could be tied to the fact that younger adults — especially Millennials — are usually less likely to strongly identify with a particular party and are also more “digitally savvy” than their elders, which the report cited as “a characteristic that is also tied to greater success at classifying news statements.”

The report, published on the Pew Research Center website, shared the questions used in the survey. Curious as to their content, I took the survey. As expected, I was 10-for-10 separating fact from opinion. I’m 49 and digitally savvy, but I’m also trained to do just exactly that. Most folks aren’t.

Of course, it could also be that younger people are just better at taking tests. Either way, I think this study goes a long way to explain some of the mail, email and online comments I’ve seen in regard to columns I’ve written.

You know, the ones printed on the page that reads “Opinion” across the top?