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Fact, Inference, and Judgment
It is important for reporters to understand the differences between facts and inferences, facts and judgments, and when reporters can (and should) make an opinion a legitimate part of a news story without endorsing or opposing the subject of the report.
FACT: A fact is knowledge or information acquired through study, experience or observation, or instruction. A fact is something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed. A fact is a real occurrence; a witnessed event. A fact is information that can be verified; you can check to see whether or not it is true.
Statement of Fact: Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius).
Statement of Fact: The man stumbled coming out of the bar.
The difference between fact and inference is that a fact is something that is empirically true and can be supported by evidence, while an inference is a conclusion, which may be correct or incorrect. An inference drawn from multiple observations is inductive reasoning.
An Inference is the process of drawing a conclusion from observations or an assumption based on what a person knows or believes he or she knows. An inference is the process of making a conclusion based on what a person believes to be true. Therefore, an inference is a deduction derived from specific information.
Inference: If water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, Cola -- which is mostly water-- will boil at the same temperature.
Discussion: Actually, salt, sugar, and practically any other substance elevates the boiling point of water, so this inference, while based on a logical conclusion, is false.
Inference: The man was stumbling as he came out of the bar and was probably drunk. He shouldn’t attempt to drive a car.
Multiple observations along this line are examples of inductive reasoning. If the stumbling man left a bar and was also carrying an open beer bottle and occasionally took a slug as he stumbled along, these observations help to reinforce the inference that the man is drunk. An alcohol blood test could authenticate this inference, in which case it would become fact. To determine the facts about short effects of alcohol consumption, a reporter might consult the scientific journal, Alcohol Research and Health, published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism or another reliable source.
A fact might be that, even at low doses, alcohol significantly impairs physical coordination required to drive a car or operate machinery safely as well as and the ability to make good decisions.
Judgment: Drinking alcohol makes people stupid and clumsy.
Judgment: Because drinking alcohol impairs reason and the ability of people to think clearly, it should be against the law for anyone drinking any amount of alcohol to drive a car.
Discussion: A judgment is a decision made after evaluating evidence. In a legal sense, judgments are findings, rulings, or statements after deliberation of the evidence. Judgments can also be statements of personal opinion based on experience or the beliefs of “opinion leaders.” Opinion leaders are people we know and whose judgment we trust. They may be experts or have considerable knowledge in a certain area. For example, you might consult the opinion or judgment of a friend who is a mechanic before you purchase a specific used car. However, anyone can issue a statement of judgment, whether he has considerable knowledge or not.
A judge in a court of law is a powerful opinion leader. He or she is the lead authority who presides over a legal case. A judge is supposed to conduct the trial of a legal case without bias, hearing all the witnesses and any other evidence presented by the parties of the case and will then issue a ruling on the matter at hand. In a jury trial, the judge conducts the proceedings but the jury will issue the finding.
Opinions, Judgments, and Facts: Sometimes it is difficult to separate fact from opinion. For centuries philosophers have been trying to discover what can actually qualify as a fact rather than an opinion. This branch of philosophy is “epistemology,” the study of the limits of what human beings can know for fact. All of the modern sciences rest on the foundation of separating fact from opinion and meticulously endeavor to find true knowledge or fact through the use of rigorous methodologies that can be replicated. It is difficult to claim that something is a fact when it is not clearly obvious, because what we believe to be facts are often proven to be wrong. For example, centuries ago people believed that illness was a result of one of the four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) becoming out of balance. The medical practice of “Blood-letting” was meant to restore health by removing bad blood. The more severe the disease, the more blood would be drawn from a patient. One method was to use leeches to draw out the impure blood. Some physicians considered leeching to be a cure for a variety of maladies such as obesity, headache, fever, and even mental illness. Modern medicine has established that bloodletting is not an effective cure for most diseases. From this example we can see that those who thought that disease was a result of imbalance in the humors, most often in the blood, were actually expressing an opinion, which was eventually discovered to be false. Science suggests that what people may believe to be a fact can almost always be challenged.
News, Facts, and Opinions
Understanding the difference between Opinions and Facts is important to journalists in the reporting of news. If news is the “reporting of current events in a factual manner,” journalists have an obligation to get as close to the truth as possible. Journalists or reporters investigate situations for the facts of that situation or event. If the content of news is significant enough, it eventually becomes history. The journalist should avoid promotional or editorial judgments in a news story.
Although reporters try to get as close to facts as possible, reporters must often rely on other people for information. Broadcast deadlines can make it difficult to check information to see if it is factual. For example, if a reporter learns about a business fraud and tells the public that a certain businessman swindled thousands of dollars from customers, that businessman’s lawyer might sue the reporter for libel if that accusation is not true. However, if the journalist reports that local police have accused this businessman of swindling customers out of thousands of dollars, the accusation may still not be true, but the journalist did not make the accusation; police did. In this case the journalist is repeating the claim of a reliable source. Sourcing or Attribution is very important for the journalist. Broadcast journalists rely heavily on sources for the meat of their stories. Reporting live at the scene of a winter storm, a journalist might factually detail the number of car accidents that are causing problems for traffic on specific roads, if that journalist reports from a helicopter and is an eyewitness to these accidents. The journalist has observed the accidents and knows which roads are backed up as a result. However, it is often the case that a reporter takes the information secondhand, perhaps from an emergency road crew. In this case the reporter would tell the listening audience: Emergency road crews say traffic accidents have blocked the interstate and four nearby roads this morning. Although attribution won’t usually come in the lead of a broadcast story, it should definitely be announced shortly afterward. If the journalist reports that icy roads caused a driver to lose control of his car, this is an inference, which might be true. If it is discovered later that the driver was under the influence of alcohol, this inference is at least partially false. Icy roads may have contributed to the accident, but so did the driver’s inebriation. Using the “observations,” “claims,” “charges,” and “accusations” of sources will allow your audience to better judge what might be true. For example: Police say icy road conditions caused the accident. If the reporter interviews a member of an emergency road crew and asks for an assessment of road conditions, that reporter is asking for an expert’s judgment. If the member of the emergency road crew replies that the roads still seem slick enough to make travel hazardous and recommends that community members avoid traveling if at all possible, that crew member has provided the public with a valuable opinion about public safety.
A reporter cannot let his or her own beliefs about an event affect the report. The reporter might believe a suspect is guilty of a crime but cannot report this until a court finds the suspect guilty. Again, this is where attribution is important. Reporting that police suspected the man is guilty is a different matter from claiming the man is guilty even if the reporter believes it is true.
Editorial Material and Editorial Writing
Editorial Material and Editorial Writing involves the presentation of an opinion about situations drawn from fact and/or inference and will include statements of judgment or value about that situation. Editorial writing is less common in broadcast and cable news that it is in print, where such material should be clearly labeled as editorial. Editorial writing and reporting is extremely popular on the Internet, where bloggers express personal views about situations. Blog writing involves regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, and may include photographs as well as audio files, video files, or links to other websites. Though bloggers may submit news items to their sites, blog writing is typically an expression of personal opinion about those events and other issues. They may become as personal as to seem like on-line diaries. Broadcast and cable journalists try to inform their public about events of the day without passing personal judgment on them. An opinion is a belief that may or may not be backed up with some type of evidence. An opinion is normally a subjective statement that can be the result of an emotion or an individual interpretation of a fact. Although the differences between facts and opinions usually rest on whether they are objective or subjective respectively, a fact can in some cases be subjective. A subjective fact can explain how someone is feeling. If a person says he is feeling sick, that is a subjective fact about that person’s physical state. On the other hand if one person tells another that he looks ill, this statement would qualify only as that person’s opinion regardless of whether it is true.
Advertising, Editorial and Promotional Writing
Advertising, Editorial and Promotional Writing creates messages intended to persuade audiences. Advertising and promotional messages are issued in behalf of some product, cause, idea, person, or institution. This type of writing is an overt attempt to influence audiences to buy a product or service or to believe and act in a certain way. Advertising and promotional messages often include statements of fact as well as direct and indirect inferences. In the case of advertising, judgments about the product (or cause, idea, person, institution) are almost always positive.
For example, in this vintage Maytag commercial, a woman provides a testimonial for her Maytag washer.
Sometimes advertising is all about inference, as in this ad for Calvin Klein perfume.
News reporters want to take care not to inadvertently promote the events or situations they cover. For example, in reporting that a local theatre company has announced its new season, the reporter doesn’t want to urge people to buy their season tickets, even if the reporter wants to help the company.
News and Narrative Writing
A writer of narrative or fiction work for media creates a script for production that will involve actors and actresses, performing the roles of specific characters in conflict. Narratives can be based on fact; they can be the reenactment of a real event or portray real people. For example, the 2007 narrative feature film, American Gangster, was based on the life of a real person, Frank Lucas, a man raised in Greensboro, North Carolina who grew up to become a notorious drug dealer in Harlem.
Narratives may have educational, promotional, or editorial purposes and are very often drawn from news accounts. However, the reverse is never true. Reporters want to avoid staging or altering anything if possible. Reporters should never direct participants in an event or insert themselves into a situation. Sometimes news reporters can unintentionally change an event. For example, the very presence of news cameras can alter the behaviors of people at the scene of an incident, usually in a more dramatic fashion. Long ago reporters recognized that people’s innate desire for attention caused them to behave in ways they might not if a camera was not on the scene. The controversy over the use of news cameras in courtrooms has persisted for decades for precisely this reason.
Some events happen in hopes of news coverage. Organizers often create “pseudo events” with the expectation that press coverage of that event will help promote a cause or publicize the group. For example, press conferences are proceedings staged specifically for press coverage. Public relations or information departments of organizations will issue “press releases,” which are “news stories” created in the hopes that news organizations will follow up on them or deliver them directly to the public. A company’s public relations department might stage “special events” designed to get favorable media and public attention for the company or its products. Even protests are rarely spontaneous events but are carefully staged, dramatized action for media coverage. Many years ago media critic Daniel Boorstein worried that counterfeit events threatened America by replacing the authentic with the contrived. When illusion of the real replaces the real, truth can become horribly contaminated (see Daniel Boorstein’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, 1962).
A good journalist should be aware of the difference between unplanned actions of life or spontaneous news and any events staged for his or her benefit. This doesn’t mean the journalist can’t cover a “special event,” but should be aware so as not to be manipulated into a promotional role by the event organizers.
Suppose an assignments editor decided to have a reporter create a special package story about the number of infants who die because they are left in a hot car in the summer. The assignments editor has learned from a press release by a children’s advocacy organization that 418 children have died of hyperthermia in the United States in the past ten years because they were left in cars. In 51 percent of these cases, a caregiver forgot the child was in the car. In 30 percent of the cases, a child was playing unsupervised in the vehicle. In 18 percent of the cases an adult left the child in the car on purpose while running an errand or for some other reason. The assignment editor believes the group’s mission to alert the public about this problem is important enough that the news should pay attention. Would you agree?
Which of the following statements is a fact? Which is an inference? Which is a judgment?
Click here to take a quiz to see how well you can differentiate between fact, inference and judgment. This quiz is NOT graded, and you can take it as many times as you like.