The attacks on the media continue south of the border, but in this country, I believe readers understand the importance of fair and accurate news coverage. What a few don’t really grasp (based on some of the complaints I receive) is the difference between a fact and an opinion. But before we look at what a recent U.S. study on this topic found, here’s a quick test for you from this week’s news and opinion sections on two big issues. See if you can spot the opinions.
A) With an election due a year from now, the Liberal government is facing concerted attacks by Mr. Ford, federal Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer and other conservative politicians across the country over the imposition of a carbon tax…
B) Above all, it’s politically smart to hand carbon revenues directly to people, rather than to intransigent provincial governments.
C) The current carbon-tax systems, globally, are like charging whisky bottlers the penalty for all the DUI penalties cased by people who drink their booze. The drunks keep drinking unabated. … Cap-and-trade systems are little more than complex sleight-of-hand schemes.
The first example is from a news story that includes the reporters’ noting that there are concerted attacks. The second is from a Globe editorial, and the third is part of a letter to the editor.
A) Mr. Trump said he might consider sanctions, although he has also appeared unwilling to distance himself too much from the Saudis, citing Riyadh’s role in countering Iranian influence in the Middle East and lucrative potential arms deals.
B) Mr. Trump’s long-running campaign against what he calls "very dangerous and sick” journalism has not only affected his own country. The effect is corrosive on democracies in other countries as well.
C) So we’re now being asked to believe that Mr. Khashoggi died inside the Saudi consulate building in Istanbul after getting into a scrap with a squad of Saudi police officials – one of whom just happened to have a bone saw in his luggage, when he came to town as a “tourist.” Oh, my.
The first quote is from a news story which includes an observation from the reporter. The second is written by columnist Lawrence Martin, and the third is from a letter to the editor.
To be fair, you are reading these examples without the guides of a columnist’s face or the story appearing on a news page, and there can be some grey areas. Opinion pieces are based on and include facts, but at their heart is a point of view. And they clearly say “opinion” at the top whether in print or online. News pieces will often include observations or context, but the base is information. At the most basic level, a fact can be proven as true or false while an opinion cannot.
Proven science such as climate change and the effectiveness of vaccines are facts that do not need to be backed up in every case, while stories on political arguments often need to have facts and background added by the reporter to ground the spin of two sides of a debate.
Back to the United States, this week, the Pew Research Center released a study which found that younger Americans are better able to distinguish between factual and opinion statements.
Researcher Jeffrey Gottfried wrote that while “younger adults tend to be less politically aware and trusting of the news media than their elders, they still performed better at this task.” The study used statements that appeal to either the right or left in the United States and on those political statements, young people were better at knowing the different between fact and opinion.
As the research suggests, this is likely because younger people are digitally savvy but also because they are less tied to a particular party. You can try the test as well on Pew’s website.
I would predict that all Canadians would do better than older Americans because our political party ties are not as baked into our thought process.
Still, I get complaints from readers, especially during election campaigns, that news coverage is biased. While some of those who complain are true believers who would be unwilling to change their minds regardless, others are right to say the flaws of a leader or a campaign are not being dealt with in an equitable fashion.
There are also the articles such as the two news examples in the small quiz above that include a reporter’s observations and rely on their years of experience. You wouldn’t want a journalist to be merely a stenographer, but when those observations go beyond straight news to analysis, I like to see the person’s face included to show that point.
Some readers rail against an opinion writer for a one-sided take (and that’s another issue: maybe you should be reading some opinions you don’t like) but that is what columnists do.
A few weeks ago, a Gallup survey of Americans found “the bias readers bring with them distorts their rating of news content, … and those who are most distrustful of the news media tend to be the most biased readers.” The study found that “articles about politics generated significantly more bias than those about science and economics. If the article mentioned President Trump or Hillary Clinton, the bias was even more pronounced.”
Surprised? I’m not but I expect a similar study in Canada would also find far less doubt and division.