Chapter 56: Facts and opinion

In this chapter, we discuss what facts and opinions are, and why journalists must distinguish between them. We give advice on reporting both facts and opinions, and suggest ways of dealing with rumours, speculation and lies.

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Journalists are constantly faced with problems of reporting facts and opinions. They must be able to distinguish between them. This is important in both gathering and writing news. It affects how you deal with anything you are told and also how you pass the information on to your readers or listeners.

We will explain shortly why it is so important for journalists to be able to recognise certain kinds of facts and opinions and distinguish them from each other. However, first we will explain what facts and opinions mean in the world of the working journalist.

Facts

A fact can be defined as something said to have happened or supposed to true. However as a journalist, you need to know how reliable statements are before you can report them as facts. This determines how you present them to your readers or listeners.

There are three kinds of facts which you have to deal with as a journalist. There are facts which have been proved to be true; facts which are probably true though they have not been proved; and facts which could be true, although they appear to be lies.

Proven facts

These are facts which are proved and accepted as true by everyone. They include such statements as "The world is round" or "Barack Hussein Obama is President of the United States". You could check these facts yourself, but they are so universally accepted as true that you do not need to. Of course, facts can change. It is a proven fact that Barack Obama is President at the time this paragraph is being written, but he will one day be succeeded by somebody else. When he is, the fact will become untrue, but for the moment it is a proven, accepted fact.

You can rely on proven facts and report them to your readers or listeners with confidence. They do not depend for their truth on who said them, so you do not need to attribute them. (Attribution is saying who said something. See Chapter 8: Quotes and Chapter 9: Attribution for more on this.)

Probable facts

These are statements which it seems reasonable to believe are true, but you are not able to prove yourself, either because you do not have access to the information or because you do not have time to dig for proof (but not because you are too lazy to check). Probable facts include statements by people who are in a position to know the truth and who have no obvious reason to tell a lie. If the Finance Minister tells Parliament that $10 million was raised from taxes last year, you can treat this as a probable fact.

These are not, however, the same as proven facts. Although they are probably true, there is a chance that they might be wrong, either because a mistake has been made or because someone lied. Because this doubt exists, we must attribute probable facts to the people who provide them.

Probable lies

People occasionally make statements which seem on the surface to be untrue, but which might just be true. A claim that "The Prime Minister has secretly married a sixteen-year-old fashion model" may seem highly unlikely, but it just might be true.

You must always check such statements before using them, and never use them without confirming them first. Once you have checked that they are true, you do not need to attribute them. They have become proven facts. Of course, if you find they are untrue, you must not use them.

If you have to report a known lie – for example, when reporting evidence presented in a court case – you must attribute the statements and you should also present the alternative counter view where and when it is given. We will talk more about this shortly.

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Opinions

Opinions are different from facts. An opinion is a conclusion reached by someone after looking at the facts. Opinions are based on what people believe to be facts. This can include probable facts and even probable lies, although few people will knowingly give an opinion based on a proven lie.

One person's probable fact can be seen by another person as a probable lie. This is one reason why people have differences of opinion.

Although an opinion can be any statement of what a person believes to be true (as distinct from a proven fact), for journalists there are two main categories of opinions.

Verifiable opinion

These are conclusions which can be verified (shown to be true) or shown to be false. People who predict the results of horse races draw conclusions from what they know about horses and racing. They may say that Golden Arrow will win the coming race. It is their opinion. Once the race is over, that opinion is proved to be either correct or incorrect, depending on whether Golden Arrow wins or loses.

Although people usually base their opinions on facts, there is always a danger that they can reach the wrong conclusion. They might have based their opinion on facts which are themselves untrue (such as Golden Arrow's fitness); they might have failed to consider a relevant fact (the ground was muddy and Golden Arrow runs best on firm ground) or they might have reached the wrong conclusion because of a gap in the logic they used to think it through (Golden Arrow had a strong name, so was bound to win).

You must always treat verifiable opinions as if they could be wrong. You must always attribute them to the person who gave them.

Expert opinion

It is worth mentioning here a special category of opinion we call expert opinion. Experts can give their opinion on an issue, based on their special knowledge of the facts. A pathologist gives an expert opinion when she tells an inquest that she believes a person was killed before being thrown in a river. She has examined the body and found very little water in the lungs. Unless there is proof of what happened, this must remain an opinion and be attributed to the pathologist. The opinion may later be verified when the killer confesses and describes what happened.

The best kind of expert opinion is one in which the expert keeps their own personal feelings out of their conclusions. They look at the facts as they see them, and draw a conclusion based only on those facts.

However, even opinion from an impartial expert must be attributed, so that your readers or listeners can judge the likely truth or otherwise of what they say.

Personal opinion

Personal opinions are the conclusions someone reaches based partly on facts and partly on what they already believe.

Personal opinions can be given by people just because they are asked. If you conduct a vox pop with people on the street, asking what they think about capital punishment, they will give you their personal opinion.

Personal opinions which are based on beliefs or values which a person already has are called value judgments.

These are opinions of what is good or bad and advice on what other people should do about something. For example, a socialist might give the opinion that a new tax on the rich is a good thing; a rich person might give the opinion that it is a bad thing. To understand value judgments, your readers or listeners need to know who is making them and why. Such opinions must be attributed.

As a journalist, you are likely to encounter a lot of people who want to express their personal opinion in order to impress people and to affect other people's attitudes. They will see your newspaper, radio or television station as a useful way of getting their personal opinions across to people. The most obvious examples of this are people such as politicians, who believe they know what is right or wrong for others. They need to get their opinions to the people, to gain their support. The prime minister who says that his government is good for the people is expressing a value judgment. If he says it often enough, people will believe that it is true, whether or not it is based on fact.

Even experts can make value judgments, although this is quite distinct from an impartial opinion based only on known facts. An expert who gives a personal opinion may be better informed than many other people on that topic, but their opinion is still just a value judgment, based on their own beliefs.

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Why distinguish facts from opinions?

We have talked so far about what facts and opinions are and how you must attribute certain facts and all opinions to people. Now we will briefly discuss why.

People use information in all sorts of ways. The most important way is to learn about the world around them and their place in it. They can then decide on what to do. They can use information on a tin of fish to choose whether to buy that brand or another. A villager who learns new facts about hygiene can build a proper toilet and so safeguard both his own health and that of the people around him.

Facts

In order to do something with information, people need to know whether or not it is true. They use facts to reach conclusions about things, to make their own opinions. The villager needs to know the facts about the different materials he can use for his toilet and where to place it.

Of course, he also needs to know how reliable the information is. The villager might believe advice on building a toilet if it is given by an expert in health, but would reject similar advice given by a four-year-old child. If you attribute the advice in your story on building toilets, the villager can decide what information he can trust.

Opinions

Reporting people's opinions is useful to your readers or listeners. Hearing an opinion on an issue might stimulate them to think about the issue themselves. If they hear a variety of different opinions, they can use this information to build up their own ideas.

They can also use other people's opinions as models for their own. If they read of someone expressing an opinion they agree with, they might adopt that opinion for themselves. It is not your job as a journalist to decide whose opinions can be used as models and whose cannot. You must report newsworthy opinions for your readers or listeners so that they can make up their own minds.

People use both facts and opinions when they are making decisions. They may choose to buy Kleeno washing powder because it costs $1 a kilo whereas the other brand, Whito, costs $1.50. Kleeno is cheaper; that is a fact. Or they may decide to buy Whito because the advertisers say "Whito is better" - which is an opinion. Both facts and opinions have value, but they must never be confused.

Whereas we generally accept facts whoever states them (assuming, of course, that they trust the person to speak honestly), we judge an opinion by the person who expresses it. In our soap powder example, we would accept that Kleeno is cheaper no matter who says it, because we simply compare the evidence (the prices). However, we would judge the claim about which is "better" by looking at who says it. When the makers of Whito say their product is better, we might be suspicious. But if the makers of Kleeno also say that Whito is better, we would tend to believe them.whito washes whiter

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Presenting facts and opinions

Your readers or listeners will find both facts and opinions useful, but they need to be shown which is which. In Chapter 9: Attribution, we showed how you deal with attribution when writing news stories. Here we will discuss briefly how you can present them to avoid confusion in your newspaper or programs.

Comment columns

Newspapers often tell their readers what is a writer's personal opinion by the way they present it in the paper. Most newspapers, for example, have an editorial or leader column where they present their own comments on the day's major events. Regular readers know where that column can be found in the paper.

The column might be headed "Opinion" or something like "The Herald says". It might appear under a smaller version of the newspaper's page one masthead. Some readers turn to the leader column first to find out what the paper thinks.

The leader column is usually written by either the editor or by a specialist senior journalist employed for the job. Within the leader column, opinions are not usually attributed to the writer - it is taken for granted that this is the comment of the people in charge of the newspaper.

Readers also expect to find opinions in review and commentary columns. Again, these are usually in a specific part of a paper, perhaps the feature section. They may be published on the same day each week in the case of daily papers.

Commentary and review columns are usually by-lined, which means they have a line of type saying who wrote the article. In some cases this can simply be the author's initials at the end of the article. (For more details, see Chapter 50: Features and Chapter 52: Reviewing.)

Comment and leader columns do not have a close equivalent on radio and television. Although some stations use short comment segments stating the station's policy on an issue, this is not good journalism. This is mainly because listeners or viewers may not be able to distinguish between news programs and editorial inserts if they tune in once the editorial has started and they miss the attribution. Unless they know that a certain person at a certain time always gives the editorial opinion, they may think they have tuned in to a current affairs program.

Some stations compromise by inviting guest speakers in to give expert opinion at certain times on certain days. Unless this is done with great care, once again there is the danger that listeners or viewers may miss the attribution. Besides, journalism is always at its best when people's opinions are challenged, even the opinions of experts.

Letters to the editor and talkback radio

The letters page and talkback programs on radio are opportunities for ordinary readers and listeners to express their opinions on issues of the day. Many newspapers specifically state on the letters page that the views expressed are not necessarily those of the newspaper.

Letters to the editor are almost always straight opinions, and most newspapers have special pages or distinctive layouts for them. Some radio and television stations have programs when listeners can express opinions. These are either structured feedback programs, when they read out letters from listeners or viewers commenting on what they have seen or heard, or talkback programs when listeners call in and their opinions are broadcast live on air.

All of these are valuable opportunities for people to have access to the media. However, if you are in charge of letters pages or talkback programs you should remember that you are legally responsible for the material you include. If it is defamatory, you can be prosecuted as well as the writer of the letter.

Radio talkback or phone-in programs usually make use of a studio delay system to prevent defamatory or offensive comments going on air. This is equipment in the studio which stores seven seconds of program in memory before sending it to the transmitter. Delay is usually switched on for phone-ins and talkback programs so if a caller says something that should not go on air (e.g. defamatory comments), the presenter can press a "dump button" which effectively deletes the preceeding seven seconds and returns the program to real time transmission. It is usually the job of the producer or presenter to switch the delay system on and off for programming.

Whether it is letters to the editor or radio talkback, you should give people a fair hearing. They might write or say things which are legally safe but which you personally dislike. You should not censor their comments for personal reasons. Their letters or calls may express an opinion about you, perhaps criticising a program you presented or a report you wrote. You should remember that you have already had your say and it is now the chance for your readers or listeners to give their opinions. It is unfair for journalists always to have the last word by adding footnotes to readers' letters or making the final comment on a talkback program.

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Rumour and speculation

You should now have some reasonably clear guidelines on how to present facts and opinions in the news. However, ordinary people do not operate by journalism's rules of checking accuracy and finding proof. In day-to-day conversation, most people are not so careful about the accuracy of facts.

Take the example of a man who runs into your newsroom shouting: "The Acme Building has fallen down! Hundreds of people have been hurt!" He most certainly has not stopped to survey the extent of the damage or count the number of people injured. It may turn out that one wall has collapsed into the street and has injured six people. That is news. What the man was giving us was speculation. When other people repeat such speculation without checking its accuracy, we have the spread of a rumour.

It is part of the journalist's job to separate fact from speculation and rumour. The only time you should mention a rumour is when you are writing a story about its effect and you need to identify the source of the effect. For example, if there is a widespread rumour that there will be a shortage of sugar, your first step should be to find out whether or not it is true by contacting the major importers, the government department concerned and a sample of store-owners. Then you can write a story based on facts. Sometimes rumours are so strong that they make people behave in a certain way, even when the rumour is not true. So, if people are panic-buying sugar because of the rumour, you can mention that fact and the rumour, but be sure also to mention whether or not the rumour is true.

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Lies

Even the best journalists can be tricked by lies into presenting misleading news.

Sometimes the lies are unconscious. Informants can think they are telling the truth but are really fooling themselves. They may report seeing what they wanted to see: for example, they report seeing a policeman arresting a youth when he was, in fact, giving the youth directions.

You must check the facts, both for your own sake and for the sake of your informants, who would not wish to appear foolish.

Sometimes, however, the informant is deliberately trying to trick you for his or her own reasons. Perhaps it is to cover up a mistake, perhaps to avoid appearing ignorant, occasionally to give false information for more sinister reasons, such as creating ill-feeling between groups or tricking people into giving money. How can you uncover such cases of lying?

Reputation

Look at the person's reputation. If the person telling you something has a reputation for dishonesty, everything they tell you should be treated with suspicion. You should be extra careful if they have fooled you or a colleague before.

If you have any doubts about the honesty of a potential interviewee, do a bit of background checking before the interview. Anything suspicious should make you more critical of what they say. You can then ask more probing questions.

Their story

Most people find it more difficult to tell a lie convincingly than to tell the truth. When we tell the truth, we can rely on our memory and fit all the facts together. With a lie, we have to use our imagination. The more complicated the lie, the more difficult it is to think up ways of linking all the pieces together. Holes will start to appear in the story and it will begin to show gaps in the logic.

Once you have the slightest suspicion that this is happening, probe deeper. Ask more searching questions, especially those which will allow you to cross-check with something else the person has said. For example, if someone is describing something they allegedly saw, ask them to describe the surroundings. They should be able to do it if they were there. If you are still suspicious, you can then visit the scene yourself to check out the truth of what was said. You can ask yourself: "Was there mud on the ground at that point? Could he have seen round the tree as he claimed?" Good journalism can be very much like detective work.

Check

It is always good journalism to cross-check what people say with at least one independent source, even if cross-checking means approaching their opponents for confirmation of details. You should do this anyway in most cases, to achieve balance in your story. We talk more about this in the next chapter.

If someone comes with a story that they have been robbed of the wages they received that morning, you could check with their employer how much they got paid and when. Check with the police that the crime has been reported. Check with anyone who may have witnessed the event - not only the people the victim says were witnesses.

You should also cross-check the credentials of people who come to you saying they represent a certain group or organisation. Check the telephone directory, business guides or Who's Who? Get in touch with a reliable source within that group. You do not have to say that you disbelieve them: there are much more subtle ways, such as ringing up to check the spelling of their name then asking a few discreet questions.

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TO SUMMARISE:

People use fact and opinions to make decisions; you must help by showing clearly which is which

You must attribute all opinions and any facts for which there is no commonly accepted proof

Commentary columns should be clearly distinguished from news

Never repeat unchecked rumour or speculation

If you suspect someone is lying to you, check what they say with an independent source

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Index to Chapter 56
  1. Facts
  2. Opinions
  3. Why distinguish facts from opinions?
  4. Presenting facts and opinions
  5. Rumour and speculation
  6. Lies
  7. To summarise
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