President Trump has made a national issue of bias in the news media, accusing major outlets of delivering “fake news.”
And the media have provided him fodder for his arguments with its selective reporting and embedded editorializing, such as the criticism of law enforcement for separating children and parents when families enter the U.S. illegally and criminal cases are launched.
That same practice attracted virtually no notice under the Barack Obama administration.
Now, a new poll from Pew Research finds that the ability to distinguish fact from opinion is influenced by political knowledge and comfort with the digital world.
The “politically aware, digitally savvy and those more trusting of the news media” fare better at identifying which statements are “factual” and which are “opinion,” the research service said Monday.
“Republicans and Democrats both [are] influenced by political appeal of statements.”
Take, for example, the long-argued issue of whether Obama was a natural-born citizen. The dozens of court cases died down toward the end of his first term only after he produced a printed copy of a computer image of what he said was his Hawaiian birth certificate.
Pew used the statement “President Barack Obama was born in the United States” as part of its effort to assess individuals’ ability to decide whether or not the statement was “factual.” That is, could it be tested and determined to be true or not.
Pew determined it was a factual statement, but only six in 10 Republicans agreed. The rest decided it was a matter of opinion.
Even 10 percent of Democrats said the same thing.
There also was disagreement between the parties on the statement, “Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have some rights under the Constitution.”
Only 43 percent of Republicans said yes, and only 65 percent of the Democrats said yes.
The unsurprisingly conclusion was, Pew said, “Republicans and Democrats more likely to see factual and opinion news statements as factual when they favor their side.”
A third statement was, “Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget,” which could be decided yes or no by looking at the budget and its expenditures.
But only 54 percent of the Democrats agreed that was a statement, not an opinion. And 63 percent of Republicans said it was a statement.
“In today’s fast-paced and complex information environment, news consumers must make rapid-fire judgments about how to internalize news-related statements – statements that often come in snippets and through pathways that provide little context,” Pew said.
So it asked 5,035 adults about recognizing fact and opinion.
The survey defined fact as a statement “that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence.”
Opinion “reflects the beliefs and values.”
The survey, conducted Feb. 22-March 8, found “even this basic task presents a challenge. The main portion of the study … found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set.
“But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong. Even more revealing is that certain Americans do far better at parsing through this content that others.
“Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savyy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion,” the report said.
Pew said 36 percent of Americans with high levels of political awareness (those who are knowledgeable about politics and regularly get political news) correctly identified all five factual news statements, compared with about half as many (16 percent) of those with low political awareness.
“Similarly, 44 of the very digitally savvy (those who are highly confident in using digital devices and regularly use the internet) identified all five opinion statements correctly versus 21 percent of those who are not.”
All is not lost yet, however.
“At this point, then, the U.S. is not completely detached from what is factual and what is not. But with the vast majority of Americans getting at least some news online, gaps across population groups in the ability to sort news correctly raise caution. Amid the massive array of content that flows through the digital space hourly, the brief dips into and out of news and the country’s heightened political divisiveness, the ability and motivation to quickly sort news correctly is all the more critical.”
Pew pointed out that the study was not intended as a knowledge quiz of news. It assessed when statements can be proved or disproved by objective evidence — “not whether they are statements that are true.”