Information and opinion: 3 tips to know the difference

On social media and blogs and in newspapers, you’ll find information and opinion side by side. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. You can find very factual reports on the most polarizing subject – like the COVID-19 pandemic. There are even more columns and YouTube videos giving their point of view.
Information and opinion: 3 tips to know the difference
The vast majority of people can’t find their way through this maze. Only 12% of Canadians can always tell the difference between fact and opinion, according to an IPSOS survey in September 2019. The PEW Research Center conducted a similar study a year earlier. They concluded that only 26% of Americans could identify factual statements in news items without fail.  35% of the participants could identify all the relevant opinions presented to them.
Here are some questions that will help you tell the difference between information and opinion. Information is based on facts, while opinion is based on beliefs.
  1. Is it verifiable or not?
If you have trouble deciding whether a statement or a quotation is information or opinion, ask yourself if it can be verified.
If it’s an opinion, you can’t verify it. That’s because it’s up to the author. Even if an opinion is controversial, it can’t be false. But it can be based on false information.
Information is a proven, verifiable fact. It can be a name, a date, a statistic or the data contained in a study. Information professionals, like journalists, must ensure their sources are reliable. They must take steps to be certain the information they obtain is authentic. Their sources must be named, so that the public can evaluate the credibility and importance of the information they convey.
When people are quoted, journalists must specify whether they are experts, witnesses or some other authority. They must also state that their comments are based on scientific evidence or reliable data.
This is so information can be denied or corrected, if it turns out to be wrong.
  1. What type of content is involved?
In the traditional media, news, reports, investigative journalism and popular science articles generally report information that can be verified. If a person expresses an opinion, it normally should be clearly identified as such.
But if you read a column, an editorial or an open letter, you’re probably seeing an opinion. Just like an influencer’s YouTube video on the pandemic.  In general, the traditional media clearly identify this type of content.
Ideally, these opinions should be based on facts. But not everyone takes the trouble to specify this or give their sources. This sometimes makes verification impossible.
  1. What is the tone of the article? What kind of vocabulary is used?
The tone used to report information is neutral and descriptive. The authors almost never mention themselves in the text. Third-person pronouns (it, he, she, they) are preferred.
Objective vocabulary excludes the person reporting it and identifies the quotations that introduce the information: it is confirmed, it is reported, it is observed, etc.
The author’s personal touch adds colour to an opinion piece. A subjective, critical tone is used. The personal pronouns refer to the author: I, me, my. If the article directly addresses the reader, pronouns like you, your ,we or our will be used.
Subjective vocabulary identifies the quotations that reflect an opinion. It represents the emotion conveyed by the source. The person quoted believes, suggests, laughs, threatens, exclaims, etc.
Remember! Everything isn’t completely black or white. Opinion pieces may be based on verifiable facts. Comments can slip into an information article. Genres can be mixed. So keep your eyes open!
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