Fact or opinion? New research finds who best tells the difference

American news consumers are inundated with tweets and headlines and stories. But in a world where news stories and opinion pieces blur and blend on many sites, can readers tell whether a statement is fact — or opinion?

A new Pew Research Center survey of 5,035 U.S. adults examines whether the public can recognize news as factual — something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence — or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it. The survey, funded by Knight Foundation, also examines which groups of Americans do a better job of accurately identifying statements as factual or opinion.

The results are a bit disconcerting: While a majority correctly identified three of five statements when surveyed, that’s just a little better than random guessing. A quarter got it all or mostly wrong and far fewer got all five correct.

So who does a good job of analyzing this content?

Americans’ familiarity with politics and the digital world bleeds into how they understand statements in the news. Those with high political awareness (those who are both knowledgeable about politics and regularly get political news) and high digital savviness (those who say they are highly capable of using digital devices and regularly use the internet) are much more likely to know the difference between factual and opinion news statements. Likewise, Americans with a lot of trust in national news organizations have an easier time separating factual from opinion statements than those with less trust.

The divide between the very digitally savvy and those who are not savvy stands out as particularly stark. Roughly three times as many very digitally savvy (35 percent) as not savvy Americans (13 percent) classified all five factual statements correctly, with the somewhat savvy falling in between (20 percent). And about twice as many classified all five opinion statements correctly (44 percent of the very digitally savvy versus 21 percent of the not digitally savvy).

Overall, Republicans and Democrats were more likely to classify both factual and opinion statements as factual when they appealed most to their side. Consider, for example, the factual statement “President Barack Obama was born in the United States.” Nearly nine-in-ten Democrats (89 percent correctly identified it as a factual statement, compared with 63 percent of Republicans. On the other hand, almost four-in-ten Democrats (37 percent) incorrectly classified the left-appealing opinion statement “Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S. economy” as factual, compared with about half as many Republicans (17 percent)

Trust in those who do the reporting also matters in how that statement is interpreted. Almost four-in-ten Americans who have a lot of trust in the information from national news organizations (39 percent) correctly identified all five factual statements, compared with 18 percent of those who have not much or no trust. However, one other trait related to news habits — the public’s level of interest in news — does not show much difference.

Take the quiz: How well can you tell factual from opinion statements?

Interestingly, which news outlet produced the statement had no impact — with one notable exception. Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats to accurately classify three factual statements when they were attributed to Fox News, and Democrats were slightly less likely than Republicans to do so. When no source was attributed — or when USA Today or The New York Times was the source — there was no difference in the results.

The report, also funded by Ford Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, is part of Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy Initiative, which aims to strengthen the role of strong, trusted journalism in our democracy.

Read the report.