Survey Finds Deep Public Confusion about News vs. Opinion

Alexey Sokolov,

News Analysis by Michael Juskowicz and Owen Davidoff

According to surveys conducted by the American Press Institute’s Media Insight Project, only slightly more than half of Americans find that it is simple to determine if something is either news or opinion. The worst area of confusion is social media, where just 43 percent of people said they could easily sort news from opinion. The main source of bewilderment may stem from the fact that most social media posts are presented in the same format as any other. As Kevin Loker says in this article, “…all links shared on Facebook look the same.”

One obvious solution is to label content on social media sites that are a form of political or commercial advertising appropriately. Major social media sites have already begun to address the issue and have enacted rules for paid promotions. However, this is not a solution for user-generated content. User-generated content won’t be labeled, and links included in user-generated posts will only include whatever labels the secondary websites include, leading back to the issue of news sites themselves properly labeling content. 

Even if all news sites were careful to label their op-eds as op-eds and their native advertising as native advertising, an astounding 50 percent of Americans are unsure of what the term “op-ed” means and 57 percent of the same group surveyed are unaware of what native advertising is. What’s worse is that journalists are aware. Among the journalists surveyed, 74 percent of them think “most people misunderstand the difference between news and opinion content” and journalists actually expect the number of people who understand these terms to be less than the actual number of people that said they do. Journalists need to do a better job of making journalistic terms clearer to the public.

Making sure the public knows they are looking at a news story won’t necessarily fix the issue. A large portion (42%) of news consumers think that news they see veers too far into commentary. What consumers and journalists agree on is that they want the news to focus on verified facts, augmented by some context and meaning. This is in accordance with what some journalists have been saying for years: Walter Lippmann advocated for making reporting more like the scientific method to aid in objectivity, Kovach and Rosenstiel, in The Elements of Journalism, try to persuade journalists to adopt “intellectual principles of a science of reporting” with similar approaches advocated by Philip Meyer and Jeff Jarvis.

Due to Okrent’s Law, which states the pursuit of balance can create imbalance, providing “both sides” can result in a skewed perception of issues. David Mindich pointed out the flaws of this method of reporting in his book Just the Facts. “False balance” may be the reason so many cannot decipher what is and is not fact. When news channels have a panel with an equal number of climate scientists who claim climate change is anthropogenic as those who deny it (or even deny climate change’s existence,) it creates a false sense of disagreement within the scientific community belies the near consensus.

The Takeaway: Journalists should start by clearly labeling analysis, opinion, or commentary accordingly, and then educate consumers about what those labels mean. Journalists should verify facts systematically (such as with the Protess Method.) Embedded commentary in news should be qualified and journalists should be aware of the public’s perception that news already has too much injected opinion.

As for news consumers, we too should be more vigilant. Attributing and verifying sources is no longer just a job for journalists. In this digital age, everyone has to be skeptical and take nothing at face value. By educating ourselves and fact-checking the fact-checkers, we will ideally reach a point where accountability creates a stronger and more trustworthy relationship.