November 18, 2016

Majority of U.S. adults think news media should not add interpretation to the facts

A key question that news organizations face, particularly during intense periods like election years, is to what degree journalists should present the facts with some interpretation, giving their audience guidance in navigating all the information that comes at them.

A majority of U.S. adults (59%) reject the idea of adding interpretation, saying that the news media should present the facts alone, a recent Pew Research Center survey found. Four-in-ten favor adding some interpretation to the facts. The survey of 4,132 adults on the Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel was conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 10, before Election Day.

Although the public prefers the news media to present “just the facts,” they may not even agree on what the facts are. In the same survey, 81% of registered voters said that most supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump not only disagree over plans and policies, but also disagree on basic facts.

There are substantial partisan differences over whether journalists should include interpretation in their stories. Registered voters who supported Trump for president favored a “just the facts” approach by more than two-to-one, with only 29% saying the news media should add interpretation. Clinton supporters, on the other hand, are evenly split on the issue, with half against interpretation and half favoring it. This may be linked to a perception among Republicans that coverage of their candidate had been too tough. Among Republicans, 46% thought coverage of Trump had been too tough, while only three-in-ten Democrats thought the same of coverage of Clinton, according to Pew Research Center’s mid-September survey.

One thing the public does approve of to encourage clarity in presenting the news: fact-checking. The vast majority of registered voters say that fact-checking is a responsibility of the news media. And even those who oppose interpretation of facts generally favor the fact-checking role of the news media. Fully 81% of U.S. adults who prefer facts without interpretation believe fact-checking is a major or minor responsibility of the news media. About the same share of those who prefer interpretation, 83%, think fact-checking is a responsibility.

Taken together, this suggests the public may not see fact-checking as an act of interpretation. Since a majority prefer the news media to avoid interpretation, the public may be more likely to approve of the news media analyzing public figures’ statements when presented as fact-checking – using facts to either verify a piece of information or correct a piece of misinformation – rather than as analysis or commentary.

Note: Survey methodology can be found here, and topline is available here (PDF).

Topics: 2016 Election, News Audience Trends and Attitudes, News Interest, News Media Ethics and Practices, Political Party Affiliation

  1. Photo of Michael Barthel

    is a research associate focusing on journalism research at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Jeffrey Gottfried

    is a senior researcher focusing on journalism research at Pew Research Center.

10 Comments

  1. Anonymous1 week ago

    Yes, you nailed it!
    The subtle ways that a writer can slant stories for and against a political figure is well known in the craft. A classic is where they use the word ‘claims’ in front of a statement by the person they wish to diminish.
    The media did more to damage the concept of a free press in the last election than any detractors. The American public isn’t stupid and they won’t put up with it anymore.

  2. Anonymous2 weeks ago

    I think that you cannot trust the “fact-checkers” any more than you can the MSM. I have seen first-hand that they are slanted just as most newspapers are slanted.

  3. Anonymous2 weeks ago

    I wonder if dissatisfaction with how factual news stories includes selection of stories and headlines. Sometimes the headlines and facts within the story are a poor match, and sometimes the stories seem selected to advance an agenda. Any examples might offend people on one or both sides of the issues cited.

  4. Anonymous2 weeks ago

    Ah, but if you receive the interpretation you might know why those particular facts were chosen. It’s good to understand the folks who are choosing which facts they report.

  5. Tim Torkildson2 weeks ago

    The views of a journalist ain’t

    wanted — so use some restraint;

    when writing the news

    kill all of your views.

    They’re simply too smarmy and quaint.

  6. Anonymous2 weeks ago

    I fear that many journalists have lost their sense of fairness and objectivity. Analysis, commentary and interpretation should be labeled as such.

    The same bar needs to be applied to all points of view when it comes to “fact checking.” Right now, depending on who is doing the “checking,” some statements are graded on a curve while others are graded more strictly, causing me to be skeptical of ALL “fact checkers.”

  7. Anonymous2 weeks ago

    I’d like to see more facts-in-context reporting. It’s pretty easy to present facts out of context as a means to lead others to a conclusion. Pew Research is a good resource in this regard!

  8. Anonymous2 weeks ago

    Actually, I think interpretations are better, if they are made transparent, because people are going to reflect a bias in the information they choose to convey. Interpretations, if handled with decorum, can engage readers by provoking them to think. What people may resist is interpretation being presented as fact.

    1. Anonymous2 weeks ago

      This is such a slippery slope, though.

    2. Anonymous2 weeks ago

      Well said. Simply put, just selecting a topic involves bias.