Are We Getting the Truth from Our News Sources? Can We Tell?

I began writing about “noise” earlier this year, around the time of an article called “Wages of Din: Bond Noise Over Rising Pay Exposes Stretched Markets.” (Title kudos to the Financial Times of February 7, 2018). It was the usual stuff: Markets are down, wages are up. People say it can’t go on.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2018, a young friend said he was unsure what investment direction to apply to his brand-new, first-ever 401(K). Tell me about it. Two days later, equities corrected, and stayed there until August. I’m sure glad I answered him with tropes about viewing the market through a long lens.

So much we hear is just noise (including my “advice” to my friend.) Back then, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) corrected 2.4% — from 26,000! — and the press reacted as if we were back in 2007. As I write this, just a few months later, the DJIA closed at a record 26,828.39 and within two weeks dropped to just below 25,000. And that is just what’s happening in the business news.

Now it seems especially timely to write about filtering “news noise”. Not only are we entering a political season, but we seem to be growing more polarized, as a body politic, every day. Can this be caused by what we might now call, “the Facebook effect”? (That is, the algorithmic force feeding of opinions we are already known to agree with, to increase engagement with an online system.)

The Pew Research Center has asked Americans about media usage and attitudes about the news for more than 30 years. Digital news consumption has grown rapidly in the last few years. In 2013, only 40% of Americans consumed news on mobile devices “often” or “sometimes”. By 2017 that same number was 74%.1 Consumption of news on social media platforms “often” or “sometimes” hit 47% in 2016 and has stayed about the same since. 2

Social media news consumers are concerned about accuracy, but not as much as they probably should be. 31% of those consuming news on social media (that’s 31% of the 47% of Americans doing it) say it is inaccurate. Does that mean 69% think it is accurate? Well, we don’t know, or at least Pew doesn’t say. We do know that 48% of those same social media news consumers say it didn’t make much difference in their opinions (and 15% said it caused them confusion).3 Across all news sources, only 56% of Americans say the news media does “very” or “somewhat” well at reporting the news accurately.4

Americans, like people around the world, say they want balanced news. In a global study, 75% of those asked in 38 countries said it is never acceptable for a news organization to favor one political party over others when reporting the news. 78% of Americans agreed.5 Yet news sources frequently viewed as polarized (Fox News and MSNBC) regularly beat, in audience share, similar sources (CNN) frequently viewed as more balanced.6 Still, taken together, those three sources together averaged only 5.2 million Americans in prime time in August 2018, out of 328 million.7

All this would matter little if our ability to discern fact from opinion was solid. Pew recently showed more than 5,000 Americans 5 facts, 5 opinions, and 2 statements that were “borderline” (not clearly distinguishable as either) and asked them to classify them as “factual” or “opinion”8. A majority (59%) were able to correctly identify 4 or 5 of the opinion statements. Only 50% were able to correctly identify 4 or 5 of the factual statements. Roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.9 In case you are wondering about the “borderline” statements, more than half (52%) of Americans considered them both opinion and only 11% said both were factual.10 About a third split them.

Most of what we hear is just noise. Some people in entertainment, politics, and yes, the media, are lately like naughty children, willing to say or do anything – however wrong — to get attention. We can’t expect to know the future of the economy. We can’t time the markets. We can’t predict how someone will act in a new situation. And neither can they.

But we can get much better at seeking out and choosing to consume news that is reported accurately, factually, without opinion. And we can build our skill at telling the difference. Pew has done a great service by offering a ready definition of fact — something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence – backed by some research. We can use it.

So, here we are once again talking about law school and the skills it builds, among them critical thinking and the analysis of facts against a set of rules. If trust – and accuracy? — in media is deteriorating, at least we can try to get better at spotting the facts.


1 http://www.journalism.org/2018/09/10/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2018/

2 http://www.journalism.org/2018/09/10/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2018/

3 http://www.journalism.org/2018/09/10/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2018/

4 http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/01/11/publics-globally-want-unbiased-news-coverage-but-are-divided-on-whether-their-news-media-deliver/

5 http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/01/11/publics-globally-want-unbiased-news-coverage-but-are-divided-on-whether-their-news-media-deliver/

6 See, for example: https://www.statista.com/statistics/373814/cable-news-network-viewership-usa/

7 August 31, 2018 population estimate was 328,474,425 at https://www.census.gov/popclock/

8 In the study, “factual was defined as, “something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence” and “opinion” was defined as something that, “reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.” Respondents were not asked to say if the facts were “true” or not – it wasn’t a, “quiz of news content.”

9 http://www.journalism.org/2018/06/18/distinguishing-between-factual-and-opinion-statements-in-the-news/

10 http://www.journalism.org/2018/06/18/overall-americans-identified-more-statements-correctly-than-incorrectly-but-sizable-portions-got-most-wrong/

Gregory J. Brandes is a law professor and Dean of St. Francis School of Law. He is an expert on legal education and admission to the bar and is admitted to the bars of the United States Supreme Court, Colorado, and Illinois.