Jenn Smith | Recess: Fact and opinion - know the difference

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Fact, fiction or opinion — can you tell the difference?

The fact of the matter is, this column sheds light on my opinion that people these days struggle with processing information. Boomers, millennials, post-milleannials, and even you, dear Greatest Generation, I'm talking about you all.

A 2018 Pew Research Center study testing the public's ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements revealed that only 26 percent of the 5,035 adults surveyed could successfully identify all five factual statements as fact. A later study found that out of the adults surveyed, Americans in the 18 to 49-year-old age group were a bit better at hitting the mark than their over-50 counterparts. For example, 76 percent of younger adults correctly identified the statement, "Democracy is the greatest form of government" as opinion versus 61 percent of older adults making the correct classification.

A study conducted between 2018 and 2019 by the Stanford History Education Group and Gibson Consulting revealed how students who will be eligible to vote this November may struggle to discern fact from fabrication. Out of the 3,446 students surveyed, two-thirds could not distinguish news stories from ads marked "sponsored content." Yikes.

Since the start of this new coronavirus outbreak, my email and social media inboxes have been filled with forwarded web links bearing all sorts of questionable information, from conspiracy theories to articles rife with unverified or unattributed details passing as journalism.

On one hand, I'm glad you shared the links because it shows that you're hungry for the truth. On the other hand, it concerns me that many of you are going about looking for it in all the wrong ways and places.

So here are six tips and exercises to graduate to a healthy and balanced news diet:

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1. Check your bias. Try this before reading, listening to or watching your next news story: Jot down a list of at least three things you think you know about the subject. Then see if the information jibes.

2. Train your eye. If you're scrolling through a website, look for items labeled "sponsored content." Did you think these were news items at first glance?

3. Mind the methodology. If the news story contains a statistic, like a percentage, do you know the sample size? There's a big difference in 20 percent out of 10 versus 20 percent out of a 100. Just ask a restaurant server.

4. Read multiple news sources.

5. Check the facts. Even well-meaning reporters make honest mistakes or get bad info.

6. Ask questions about what you heard or read, then seek more answers.

And if anyone asks how you became so savvy about the news, tell 'em you went straight to the source.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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