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The Present

86% of American 15-year-olds can’t distinguish fact from opinion. Can you?

The statistics for American adults aren't that much better.
Key Takeaways
  • The results of the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment show that just 13.5 percent of American 15-year-olds could reliably distinguish fact from fiction in reading tasks.
  • A 2018 Pew Research Center study showed that more than half of U.S. adults had trouble identifying fact from fiction after reading a list of 10 statements.
  • Respondents who were least able to correctly flag opinions were likely to be digitally unsophisticated, relatively politically unaware and generally mistrustful of the media.

As Americans’ trust in mass media is hovering near all-time lows, it’s especially important for us to sharpen our ability to tell fact from opinion in the news. (At least, that’s one opinion.)

But what’s fact is that many young Americans struggle with this basic skill of critical evaluation, according to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The results showed that just 13.5 percent of American 15-year-olds were able to tell facts from opinions in reading tasks involving sentences like:

“Drinking milk is the best way to lose weight.”

Most students couldn’t tell that this is an opinion, even though they were told that it came from the International Dairy Foods Association, a trade group with an obvious interest in promoting the health benefits of milk. A report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which administers PISA, noted that highly skilled readers are able to tell fact from fiction, in part, “based on implicit cues pertaining to the content or source of the information.”

This caliber of media literacy is especially important today considering that people can get news from a wide array of online sources, the report suggested.

“Reading is no longer mainly about extracting information; it is about constructing knowledge, thinking critically and making well-founded judgements. […] In this “post-truth” climate, quantity seems to be valued more than quality when it comes to information. Assertions that “feel right” but have no basis in fact become accepted as truth.”

American adults struggle with facts and opinions, too

American adults seem to be better at telling fact from opinion, but not by as much as you might think. In 2018, Pew Research Center conducted a study of 5,035 U.S. adults who were asked to read 10 sentences and mark each as opinion or fact. Five of the sentences were fact, five were opinion. The results showed that 26 percent of Americans correctly marked all five factual statements, while 35 percent correctly marked all the opinions.

Here are a few of the statements (you can take the full quiz here):

  • “Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget.”
  • “Healthcare costs per person in the U.S. are the highest in the developed world.”
  • “President Barack Obama was born in the United States.”
  • “Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally are a very big problem for the country today.”
  • “Government is always wasteful and inefficient.”
  • “Abortion should be legal in most cases.”
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Interestingly, the Americans who were least able to recognize opinions were more likely to be digitally unsophisticated, politically unaware and mistrustful of the media.

Pew Research Center

Can you tell which of these 5 statements is opinion?

The Pew quiz offers some relatively clear cut examples of facts and opinions, but it’s not always as easy to distinguish between the two. For example, check out these five excerpts from mainstream news sources, and decide whether each would better be classified as opinion or fact.

  1. CNN — “There’s zero doubt that if Democrat Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the two Muslim women in Congress, had uttered anything even close to those comments, the Republican Party would’ve been up in arms.”
  2. Vox — “If the government prevails on appeal, that will allow the executions to move forward soon afterwards. If the government loses on appeal, that will mean that it will have to comply with the FDPA in order to execute the four men.”
  3. CBS News — “Our lives have been transformed by the information age.”
  4. New York Times — “It was a horrifying story, but it was same story as every other suicide bombing, from the descriptions of the carnage and the mayhem to the quotes from eyewitnesses and the authorities.”
  5. Fox News — “The report, which is expected to be released Monday, may confirm or refute assertions made by Republicans and Trump regarding the acquisition of a warrant to conduct surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.”
Answers
  1. Opinion
  2. Fact
  3. Opinion
  4. Opinion
  5. Fact
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