3.2 Fact and opinion
It is very important, as an active reader, to recognise the difference between fact and opinion in texts. Facts are true and cannot be argued with, because they can be proven and are supported by evidence, while opinions vary according to the attitudes of the writer. Remember, however, that facts can be twisted to fit the opinions of the writer.
Activity 15 What is fact and what is opinion?
Without using a dictionary or a search engine, write down what you think is meant by ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’.
Here’s what I wrote. Yours might not be exactly the same but should be similar.
- Fact: Something that is true and can be proved.
- Opinion: A person’s view. It may or may not be backed up by facts.
When people write articles, they often select facts that support their opinion.
When you read this kind of text, you need to be able to tell the difference between facts that can be backed up by evidence and ‘facts’ that have been made up by the writer. You can do this by:
- checking that any reports that are quoted actually exist and refer to the fact in question
- finding other sources that give opposing points of view
- thinking of the reason the text has been written and its audience (for example, an article in a popular newspaper may have been written to sell the newspaper rather than to give a true or fair account of an incident)
- looking for sensationalist words, such as ‘horror’ or ‘disgraceful’, which might influence readers’ opinions.
An objective piece of writing is based on facts and can be backed up with evidence. Subjective writing expresses opinions and feelings rather than facts.
Activity 16 Recognising fact and opinion (1)
1. Which article is the most objective?
The correct answer is b.
2. Which contains more facts?
The correct answer is b.
3. Which article contains more opinions?
The correct answer is a.
Article 1 is more sensationalist than Article 2 and probably appeared in a popular newspaper. The clues that Article 1 is based on opinion rather than on facts alone include the following:
It uses emotional language such as ‘horrifying’ and ‘dangerous’.
It mentions that John Cable ‘narrowly survived breaking his neck’, although there was no direct evidence of this.
It contains bias and prejudice; for example, Cable is described as a ‘family man’, ‘hard-working’ and ‘selfless’, while the company is described as ‘negligent and careless’. There seems to be no evidence to back up these descriptions.
It is interesting how the use of words changed what was a minor accident into a potentially life-threatening one.
Article 2 is fairer and simply gives the facts of the accident. It does not try to place the blame on anyone or sensationalise the event.
Now try the next activity, which gives you more practice in recognising the difference between facts and opinions.
Activity 17 Recognising fact and opinion (2)
The following extract is adapted from an article in a national newspaper. Highlight facts in yellow and opinions in green.
These are facts, as I saw them on first reading:
- lighting up just one cigarette knocks 11 minutes off a life span
- over a lifetime the average male smoker consumes 311,003 cigarettes
- smoking a packet of 200 cigarettes knocks a day and a half off your life.
The only opinion is offered by Clive Bates, when he described smoking as ‘a disgusting habit’.
Reading all the statistics about smoking affecting length of life, I took the article to be a fair description of the impact of smoking on health. On second reading, however, it seems that the figures themselves cannot be trusted. According to the doctor, they are ‘crude’ – which could mean inaccurate.
This is a good example of where you can be misled by what appears to be the truth. On first reading it may appear that you are reading facts in the form of statistics, but these statistics may have been picked to reflect someone’s opinion.
Activity 18 Same story, different reports
Read the two texts below.
What similarities and differences can you spot?
Which contains the most bias?
There is a call to encourage more young women to consider a career in construction.
The figures for 2016–17 show that only 620 females in the UK started apprenticeships in construction and the built environment, compared with more than 20,000 males. In Scotland, women make up less than 2% of modern apprenticeships within the industry.
Why on earth do so few apprenticeships in construction and the built environment go to girls and young women?
You might not be surprised by the statistics on construction apprenticeships and gender, but when you think about it they are utterly depressing. It seems an appalling injustice that so few young women take up apprenticeships in well-paid, male-dominated industries like construction.
The texts are similar in that they are on the same topic. However, they use very different styles of writing.
- Text A uses more factual language, whereas Text B uses sensationalist language with words such as ‘utterly depressing’ and ‘an appalling injustice’.
- Text A uses statistics to support its argument, whereas Text B uses opinion.
- Text A uses formal language and has a professional tone, whereas Text B is more informal and speaks directly to the reader.
Text B contains the most bias as it argues and highlights the writer’s opinion using the techniques identified above. Text A contains less bias and uses facts to support the writer’s case.
Remember, journalists write for the people who buy their newspaper, so stories are slanted towards keeping them interested.
In this section you have looked at:
- identifying fact, opinion, bias and prejudice
- how a writer’s point of view can affect the way they write a text
- telling the difference between what is true and what is opinion.
Being able to do these things makes you a critical reader – a crucial step in becoming a good reader.