Fact, opinion, or B.S.?

Some medial literacy awareness campaigns focus on the accuracy and factualness of information, such as the one you see below from UNESCO.

They tell internet users not to share inaccurate messages…but the problem is, things are not really that clear-cut in real life. Often times news and other messages are a mixture of facts and opinions.

For example, what should we do with a message like below on the day your city’s daily air pollution index hit a record high?

“Worst air quality in history today. Avoid going out or risk losing five years of your life expectancy. #governmentfail”

The first part is a piece of information that can be backed up with scientific data. It is a fact that the city is experiencing a serious health hazard. We need to alert our friends and family, right?

What about the second part — “avoid going out or risk losing five years of your life expectancy”? Is this evidence-based fact? Or an opinion?

If you say it’s a fact, what sort of evidence does this claim need for everyone to agree that it is not disputable? Or is it an opinion? If so, whose opinion is it? And the hashtag? Is air pollution really a result of the government’s inadequate measures? How can you prove it?

Given the precarious nature of this message, which can be taken as too alarmist (or even “fake news” by the government supporters), should we refrain from hitting that share button? But it’s true that air is bad, right?

If you think the information above is complicated, how about this one?

“Hong Kong has one of the most efficient public transportation systems in the world, according to the 2018 World Transportation Index by OECD.”

Is this a fact or an opinion? Let’s see what Kelly and AJ think in the following video:

Falsely attributing information to a credible source is more common than you might think. Making stuff up and then say it’s from a reliable source is one of the common techniques false news stories adopt.

Legitimate news stories don’t do that, of course, but differentiating facts from opinions is not as easy as you might think.

In the Strapline video, AJ showed Kelly a headline that depicted the recent Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam as a “collapse.”

As Kelly said, it is a fact that the President of the United States and the Supreme Leader of North Korea didn’t reach any type of agreement after the meeting — but can we also say that it is a fact that the meeting was a failure, or a “collapse”?

The word surely gives a certain impression of the event beyond the fact — do you agree? Is the failure of the summit then a fact or an opinion?

Separating facts from opinions requires a nuanced understanding of what constitutes objective evidence, which is the topic of the next episode, but for now, we should realize that while there is nothing wrong with sharing opinions, people might mistake them as facts. 

Key ideas
  • Facts are something that can be proven with objective evidence.
  • What we think about the facts or how we describe the facts can be considered opinions.
  • News stories normally have both facts and opinions (and sometimes they also contain questionable non-facts).
For Teachers

Learning Outcome

Students will be able to tell facts from opinions (or bogus information) within a news story.

Suggested Activity

  • Divide students into small discussion groups.
  • Ask each group to pick any news article from an established media outlet.
  • Tell them to highlight each piece of information in the story in different colors based on its nature. For example; “facts” in yellow, “opinion” in green, “not sure” in orange.
  • Ask them to discuss their rationals for their judgment and research the “not sure” category to find out more about the information.
  • As a class, discuss the nuances and difficulties of separating facts from opinions.