Americans over 50 are worse than younger people at telling facts from opinions, according to a new study by Pew Research Center.
Given 10 statements, five each of fact and opinion, younger Americans correctly identified both the facts and the opinions at higher rates than older Americans did. Forty-four percent of younger people identified all five opinions as opinions, while only 26 percent of older people did. And 18-to-29-year-olds performed more than twice as well as the 65+ set. Of the latter group, only 17 percent classified all five facts as factual statements.
On the individual questions, the identification gap was particularly large regarding the nature of the American government and questions about immigration, but there was no statement that younger Americans did not identify with equal or higher accuracy than their elders.
An earlier study by the American Press Institute also found that older Americans were more confident than younger ones in their ability to discern fact from opinion.
The research tacks against the idea that younger people who are extremely online (or “digitally savvy,” in Pew’s terms) might be more exposed and/or more susceptible to misinformation. But the real correlation with poor performance is exposure to television news, which has fallen off among young people but remains very high among older people. This shouldn’t be surprising if we consider the evolution of American media over the past 60 years. Someone born in 1958, now 60, witnessed two revolutions in media before the internet: talk radio and 24-hour cable news. Both blended facts and opinions in new and unprecedented ways, and they matured with the cohort of Americans who are now over the age of 50.
In 1987, the Reagan administration repealed the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine. That paved the way for the rise of right-wing talk radio, brilliantly chronicled by David Foster Wallace for this magazine. Describing a talk-radio host, John Ziegler, Wallace noted that it was not his job “to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible.” He has only to be “stimulating.”