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Business, Diversity & Inclusion, Leaders, STEM

Fake News: Differentiating Between Fact, Opinion, and Commentary

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”  Congressman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003)

fake-news_imageAmerica is not lacking in news sources! Digital news sources such as social media, messaging apps, texts and email along with traditional media, i.e. television, radio, and print provide a constant stream of information from organizations and persons that we are familiar with and those that we are not.

Data from a recent survey by Pew Research Center, conducted in early 2016 in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, show that news remains an important part of public life: More than seven-in-ten U.S. adults follow national and local news somewhat or very closely – 65% follow international news with the same regularity. Fully 81% of Americans get at least some of their news through websites, apps or social networking sites. And, this digital news intake is increasingly mobile. Among those who get news both on desktop computers and mobile devices, more than half prefer mobile.

Most if not all of the major news outlets use social media to enhance the reach of their current audience and to attract new readers, viewers, and listeners. However, one error that too many people make is thinking that information that they read, hear or view from a media source is news, and that it is also factual and accurate.

You know where you get your news and information from. How do you know it is good? How do you know it matters? That job is now on every news consumer’s shoulders.

One thing that an informed member of the public needs to be able to do to combat fake news is to differentiate between fact, opinion, and commentary:

  • A fact is something that can be proved to be correct.

To expand on this definition, a fact is something that can be checked and backed up with evidence, e.g. In 2010, Lionel Messi was named FIFA World Footballer of The Year. We can check these details by looking at FIFA records.

Facts are often used in conjunction with research and study. The census (a survey of the population usually conducted by a government department) is a good example of when facts are used. These facts can be supported by information collected in the census, e.g. According to UK Government national statistics in 2004, approximately one in five people in the UK were aged under 16. (Source: BBC/Skillwise)

  • An opinion is what someone thinks or believes. It may or may not be correct, and may be difficult to prove.

Again, to expand on this definition, an opinion is based on a belief or view. It is not based on evidence that can be checked, e.g. Wayne Rooney is the best football player in the English Premier League. Some people might think there are other players in the English Premier League who are better than Wayne Rooney.

Opinions can be found in many types of writing such as a “Letter to the Editor” in a newspaper. A reader may write in with an opinion e.g. “24 hour pub licensing will ruin our community.” Another reader may write in and disagree, e.g. “24 hour licensing will stop yobbish behavior by staggering closing hours.”  (Source: BBC/Skillwise)

  • Commentary is also an opinion, however it can be the opinion of one person, more than one person, or a group opinion like an editorial board.

Example: A single essay written or spoken discussing or explaining a topic especially regarding a recent event as the election report was followed by several commentaries from political analysts.

However, when those reporting or issuing the news mix facts and opinions, things can get complicated fast in this era of hyper-news. It is often difficult to tell one from the other. Most reputable news sources report the facts, and leave the opinions, editorials, and commentaries for others to give. The others are usually persons knowledgeable of a particular topic or subject area.

Another challenge for news consumers is when reporting of the facts is skewered. News reporters and journalists should resist biasing their readers, viewers and listeners toward a particular objective, view- or endpoint. How do they do this? One way is to focus on certain facts while purposely leaving out others, especially those that don’t support a particular idea or thought. In other words, one can be knowledgeable on an issue, but biased in the reporting of the information and data.

Another form of distorting and biasing viewers and listeners is emoting gestures and facial expressions when reporting or discussing the news. The viewer or listener may think that the information is factual because those discussing it are so emotionally charged. And by George, if they are fired up, maybe you should get fired up too! The arousing of emotions, more often negative than positive, is at the heart of fake news reports.

We-don't-see-things-as-we-areIn an earlier post – Leaders: Feelings Don’t Care About The Facts or The Law, the introduction states:

At the heart of many conflicts in business, STEM, and just about everywhere else is a collision of emotions and facts. Emotions and facts are clearly two distinct topics, however, they can become almost inseparable without self-control and common sense. Simply put, feelings don’t care about the facts or the law!

Fake news or alternative facts are also at the heart of many personal and professional disagreements.

This discussion on facts and opinions would not be complete without saying a few words about gossip and watercooler talk. While some may shun the office gossiper and the latest news being discussed on the grapevine, there’s one thing that those of us who have been walking around for more than a few years know: more often than not, there is some truth to the information that is circulating via these verbal channels. You are not required to participate in the gossip or contribute to the grapevine. Your, job, however, is to at least know what information is being circulated. These informal old school messaging and information sources have helped many, myself included, to avoid being blind-sided by decisions and actions that have not yet been announced through regular communication channels.

For reasons above and others, it is important to listen, read, and watch the news with a questioning mind.



About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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