National News Literacy Week underscores the vital role of news literacy in a democracy and provides audiences with the knowledge, tools and abilities to become more news-literate. The week is presented by the News Literacy Project and The E.W. Scripps Company.
Has anyone ever said to you something like, “That might be true for you, but not for me,” or “Well, that’s just your opinion” when discussing an issue? It’s also common to say, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion” during a disagreement. But what do we really mean when we say things like this?
Discussions around news literacy often involve the importance of distinguishing fact from opinion. It’s worth taking a look at how well we really understand those concepts.
But first—let’s talk about ice cream.
Ice cream, arithmetic, and little green creatures
Consider this statement: “Vanilla ice cream tastes better than chocolate ice cream.”
Now ask, is it true or false? Well, it depends. If vanilla is your all-time favorite flavor, it’s most likely true. If chocolate tops your list, it’s probably false.
Let’s compare another statement: “Two plus two equals four.”
This is a simple mathematical truth. If you want to argue that it’s false, you have your work cut out for you.
One last statement to consider: “There are other forms of intelligent life in the universe.”
Do we know the truth of this statement? Can we say for sure that there is—or isn’t—extraterrestrial intelligent life? Nope, we can’t.
Facts and opinions
What’s the point of these examples? It’s common to define a fact as something that can be proven true, whereas opinions are regarded as beliefs or judgments held by a person that can’t be proven true.
Opinions are regarded as more subjective, relative to the individual; facts are objectively true, regardless of how we feel about them.
This distinction makes sense when comparing talk of ice cream and arithmetic.
One’s favorite ice cream flavor is a matter of that person’s individual taste. Where 2+2=4 is concerned, that statement is true. It’s true regardless of whether someone believes it’s false or if they just really don’t like math.
But what about little green creatures in outer space? Here’s where things get fuzzy.
We don’t know for sure if there is or isn’t extraterrestrial intelligent life. Some people believe strongly that there is; others believe with equal strength that there isn’t.
Here’s the catch: there either is, or there is not, extraterrestrial intelligent life. One side of the issue is factually correct; the other side is factually incorrect.
The “little green creatures” example is one where we have a potential fact—we just don’t know yet whether it’s true or false.
In spite of not knowing the truth, people form strong opinions about either side of the issue. But these opinions aren’t the same as your favorite flavor of ice cream.
If vanilla is your favorite flavor, you’re not wrong. It’s your personal preference. If you believe there are not little green creatures out there, and we find proof that there are, you would turn out to be wrong.
Why it matters for news literacy
So what does this have to do with news literacy?
It’s important to see the difference between something that’s truly just a matter of opinion—like one’s favorite flavor of ice cream—and cases where we have beliefs about factual matters where the truth is in question.
If we treat everything where the truth isn’t known, or is in question, as just a matter of opinion, there’s a strong tendency for people to pick and choose their beliefs as though they were picking among flavors of ice cream.
If everything is just a matter of opinion, then objective evidence, or anything like concrete proof of a fact, doesn’t matter.
This opens the door for consumers of information to be subject to all sorts of manipulation and persuasion, the current flood of misinformation and disinformation we’re living through being a prime example.
So remember: a fact is a fact, even if we don’t yet know that it's true. We can have beliefs one way or the other, but those on one side of the fence will turn out to be wrong once the truth is known.
And, finally, it must be said that the best flavor of ice cream in the world, clearly, is cookie dough. Prove me wrong!