Older People Are Worse Than Young People at Telling Fact From Opinion

Given five facts, only 17 percent of people over 65 were able to identify them all as factual statements.

Americans watch TV.
Aaron Josefczyk / Reuters

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In 1987, the Reagan administration repealed the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine.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.”

Earnest critiques of the facts and opinions that Ziegler put into the world as if he were a journalist made no sense. “Maybe it’s better to say that he is part of a peculiar, modern, and very popular type of news industry, one that manages to enjoy the authority and influence of journalism without the stodgy constraints of fairness, objectivity, and responsibility that make trying to tell the truth such a drag for everyone involved,” Wallace concluded.

Sound familiar to anyone? While talk radio caters to all tastes, the medium developed to serve an audience Pew described in 2004 as “a distinct group; it is mostly male, middle-aged, well-educated and conservative.” That cohort is now over 50, and its members spent decades listening to radio hosts stimulate by mixing facts and opinions in whatever proportion was necessary to keep listeners from turning the dial.

At the same time, as James Fallows wrote in his blistering 1996 critique, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, television talk shows became shoutier and nastier—“Squabbling replaces dialogue”—through the ’80s and ’90s, eroding the commitment to facts that is at the center of journalism. On television, reporters offered opinions, and opinion writers proffered facts; both took the Washington game more seriously than the actual state of affairs. Fallows argued that the real world and its facts became narrowed into a set of partisan consequences. In this context, facts are true only insofar as they lead to the right political team scoring points.

These trends deepened with the mid-’90s launch of the 24-hour cable channels Fox News and MSNBC. They had to be entertaining and capture a niche, which turned out to be a partisan worldview. Fox News has experienced tremendous success by blending partisanship with a mélange of fact and opinion.

The internet, of course, became like the previous iterations of the media, but more so. While the bulk of coverage is close to the political center, the far-right media grew to serve ever-larger numbers of older Americans, mostly with the same undifferentiated mix of fact and opinion that talk radio pioneered. “Our own study of over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day [2016] shows that a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system,” wrote a team of Harvard scholars, “using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world.”

In short, for decades now, older people, especially conservatives, have experienced an erosion of the line between fact and opinion in every media form. The only surprising thing about the new research’s results is that every group’s performance was not worse.