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The big difference between facts and opinions

Photo Credit: BBC 5 mins read

Some news readers may be confused on what constitutes fact and opinion in journalism. While this reality is arguably prevalent, understanding journalistic terms such as editorials, news stories, opinions etc. has always been challenging to some  readers. 

Nonetheless, in this case, a fact is a statement that can be proven true or false and an opinion expresses a person’s feelings that cannot be proven in most cases. While opinions can also  be based on facts or emotions, they are sometimes meant to deliberately mislead others, that is why they are considered not so dependable. 

In a study conducted by   Pew Research Center   on “If Americans have some ability to separate what is factual from what is opinion,” the result shows that most respondents have some trouble separating what is factual from what is an  opinion. And  the few that could have some strong political background. 

Due to this resulting gap, some audiences have unconsciously become carriers of fake news, misinformation and disinformation, while some people intentionally spread false information and lies through opinion. It is heartbreaking to note that false, opinionated information often travels faster than facts,  in line with the popular saying, “fake news spreads like wildfire.”

Experts  in media content have said that most people skim the headlines of a newspaper quickly to decide if they want to read the lead article or not. While some readers read a headline more than once to completely understand, others scan the article for specific information. These methods of reading news contents may not allow the reader to fathom the entire information outlined in the piece.

The inability of readers to distinguish between factual reports and opinionated articles has some negative consequences. An example is the recent opinion article on the suspension of the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) that triggered a lot of reactions, with some of the readers spreading false information that NYSC has been suspended, mistaking the opinionated article for fact. 

But what are the basis for facts and opinion?

An opinion is an expression of a person’s feelings that cannot be proven; opinions can be based on facts or emotions and sometimes they are meant to deliberately mislead others.

These are typical examples of expressing opinion.

Sometimes, the author may use descriptive language to appeal to the reader’s emotions and sway their thinking, of which emotional language is neither right nor wrong, but the way in which it is used can be positive or negative, leaving it up to the reader to make a reasonable judgement about the material and  draw their own conclusion.

Meanwhile, a fact generally refers to something that is true and can be verified as such; a fact is something that can be proven to be true or false.

Typical examples fact

According to Prof. Kwame Karikari, Facts are objective not subjective and journalism has a burden of being factual, thus explaining  why fact checking is important.

In Karikari’s words: “Facts are important for fairness, they are important in all interpersonal relationships, we need the facts as they provide solutions to personal and global problems, we need the facts as they make our government more democratic.”

Establishing the difference between fact and opinion

Research has shown that  lack of labeling can lead to readers’ confusion, so journalists have made it a point of duty to always place a labeling on all articles to indicate analysis, opinion, reviews and news, and the label is always placed  in a prominent place at the top of articles.

Typical example of labeling
  • Opinions promote a single viewpoint while facts present a variety of viewpoints:

Opinions are essentially subjective and dogmatic. It doesn’t offer the liberal space for other ideas. What it says it is, that is what it is, e.g. ‘Majority of Nigerians are mentally ill’. This statement did not offer an index for measuring the statement, nor did it proffer the basis for it.   

  • Opinion may use first person narrative while fact do not advocate for anyone’s viewpoint:

Opinions mainly reflect the author’s thought about the subject, suggesting what the reader’s conclusion should also be. For example, ‘I know that election in Nigeria is a deceptive scheme’ is an opinion. There is no verifiable data to back this claim.

Critical thinking is the best way to figure which statements are fact, and which statements are opinion.  Most opinions are used to persuade the reader, so readers must pay keen attention to the tone of the writer. For instance: Biased words like “bad, worse, worst, good, better, best, worthwhile, worthless, etc” shows a particular feeling towards something the writer is writing about.

  • Opinions  may have some sarcasm or exaggerations while facts attribute opinions to sources:

Opinion may vary from source to source and person to person but facts are simple statements used to inform or make an argument. that is why it is necessary for the reader to ask these questions to identify a factual statement: Can the statement be proved or demonstrated to be true? Can the statement be observed in practice or operation? Can you see it happen? Can the statement be verified by witnesses, manuscripts, or documents?

  • Opinion headlines start with a statement while fact healings start with a quote or affirmative statement.

Opinions headlines reflect the author’s thought about the subject; a good example is this piece by Wole Oloko that reads: “Madam Kemi Adeosun: Don’t push your luck.” Another example is “Aboubakar Hima defrauded Nigeria of arms funds in past administration, not in Buhari’s govt.” This headline gives the reader assurance that the writer has data on the issue.

Five elements that differentiate fact and opinion

Conclusion

As the lines between fact and opinion  continue to blur in the sight of the reader; one significant thing between the two concepts is that while opinion tries hard to convince readers about a particular issue, fact, on the other hand,, tells the reader what the issue is all about and offers the freewill to decide. When next you come across a piece of news, check out the undertone. Does  it try hard to convince you or simply present the matter to you? Simply, facts are objective, opinions are subjective.  Hence, it is vital to  judge facts and opinions carefully in order to come to the right conclusion.

The researcher produced this fact-check per the 2021 Kwame Karikari Fact-checking Fellowship partnership with JAY 101.9 FM Jos to facilitate the ethos of truth in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country

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