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People in this day and age are constantly faced with problems of discerning facts and opinions. They must be able to distinguish between them. This is important in both gathering and reporting news as it affects the reader’s ability to be truly informed. It is a great responsibility to the public, that a journalist report accurately and with sources for the public to verify what they are being told. How we pass information to our readers or listeners is a number one priority.

It is important for people to be able to recognize certain kinds of facts and opinions and distinguish them from each other.

What are facts and opinions?


fact can be defined as something said to have happened or supposed to true. However as a reader or viewer, you need to know how reliable statements are before you can receive them as facts.

There are three kinds of facts which you have to deal with as an informed reader or viewer. There are facts which have been proved to be true; facts which are probably true though they have not been proved; and facts which could be true, although they appear to be lies.

Proven facts

These are facts which are proved and accepted as true by everyone. They include such statements as “The world is round” or “Barack Hussein Obama is President of the United States“. You could check these facts yourself, but they are so universally accepted as true that you do not need to. Of course, facts can change. It is a proven fact that Barack Obama is President at the time this paragraph is being written, but he will one day be succeeded by somebody else. When he is, the fact will become untrue, but for the moment it is a proven, accepted fact.

You can rely on proven facts and report them to your social circles or conversationalists with confidence. They do not depend for their truth on who said them, so you do not need to attribute them. (Attribution is saying who said something.

Probable facts

These are statements which it seems reasonable to believe are true, but you are not able to prove yourself, either because you do not have access to the information or because you do not have time to dig for proof (but not because you are too lazy to check). Probable facts include statements by people who are in a position to know the truth and who have no obvious reason to tell a lie. If the Finance Minister tellsParliament that $10 million was raised from taxes last year, you can treat this as aprobable fact.

These are not, however, the same as proven facts. Although they are probably true, there is a chance that they might be wrong, either because a mistake has been made or because someone lied. Because this doubt exists, we must attribute probable facts to the people who provide them.

Probable lies

People occasionally make statements which seem on the surface to be untrue, but which might just be true. A claim that “The Prime Minister has secretly married a sixteen-year-old fashion model” may seem highly unlikely, but it just might be true.

You must always check such statements before using them, and never use them without confirming them first. Once you have checked that they are true, you do not need to attribute them. They have become proven facts. Of course, if you find they are untrue, you must not use them.

If you have to report a known lie – for example, when reporting evidence presented in a court case – you must attribute the statements and you should also present the alternative counter view where and when it is given. We will talk more about this shortly.


Opinions are different from facts. An opinion is a conclusion reached by someone after looking at the facts. Opinions are based on what people believe to be facts. This can include probable facts and even probable lies, although few people will knowingly give an opinion based on a proven lie.

One person’s probable fact can be seen by another person as a probable lie. This is one reason why people have differences of opinion.

Although an opinion can be any statement of what a person believes to be true (as distinct from a proven fact), for journalists there are two main categories of opinions.

Verifiable opinion

These are conclusions which can be verified (shown to be true) or shown to be false. People who predict the results of horse races draw conclusions from what they know about horses and racing. They may say that Golden Arrow will win the coming race. It is their opinion. Once the race is over, that opinion is proved to be either correct or incorrect, depending on whether Golden Arrow wins or loses.

Although people usually base their opinions on facts, there is always a danger that they can reach the wrong conclusion. They might have based their opinion on facts which are themselves untrue (such as Golden Arrow’s fitness); they might have failed to consider a relevant fact (the ground was muddy and Golden Arrow runs best on firm ground) or they might have reached the wrong conclusion because of a gap in the logic they used to think it through (Golden Arrow had a strong name, so was bound to win).

You must always treat verifiable opinions as if they could be wrong. You must always attribute them to the person who gave them.

Expert opinion

It is worth mentioning here a special category of opinion we call expert opinion. Experts can give their opinion on an issue, based on their special knowledge of the facts. A pathologist gives an expert opinion when she tells an inquest that she believes a person was killed before being thrown in a river. She has examined the body and found very little water in the lungs. Unless there is proof of what happened, this must remain an opinion and be attributed to the pathologist. The opinion may later be verified when the killer confesses and describes what happened.

The best kind of expert opinion is one in which the expert keeps their own personal feelings out of their conclusions. They look at the facts as they see them, and draw a conclusion based only on those facts.

However, even opinion from an impartial expert must be attributed, so that you can judge the likely truth or otherwise of what they say.

Personal opinion

Personal opinions are the conclusions someone reaches based partly on facts and partly on what they already believe.

Personal opinions can be given by people just because they are asked. If you conduct avox pop with people on the street, asking what they think about capital punishment, they will give you their personal opinion.

Personal opinions which are based on beliefs or values which a person already has are called value judgments.

These are opinions of what is good or bad and advice on what other people should do about something. For example, a socialist might give the opinion that a new tax on the rich is a good thing; a rich person might give the opinion that it is a bad thing. To understand value judgments, your readers or listeners need to know who is making them and why. Such opinions must be attributed.

As a reader or viewer, you are likely to encounter a lot of people who want to express their personal opinion in order to impress people and to affect other people’s attitudes. They will see newspaper, radio or television stations as a useful way of getting information. The most obvious examples of this are people such as politicians, who believe they know what is right or wrong for others. They need to get their opinions to the people, to gain their support. The prime minister who says that his government is good for the people is expressing a value judgment. If he says it often enough, people will believe that it is true, whether or not it is based on fact.

Even experts can make value judgments, although this is quite distinct from an impartial opinion based only on known facts. An expert who gives a personal opinion may be better informed than many other people on that topic, but their opinion is still just a value judgment, based on their own beliefs.

Why distinguish facts from opinions?

We have talked so far about what facts and opinions are and how you must attribute certain facts and all opinions to people. Now we will briefly discuss why.

People use information in all sorts of ways. The most important way is to learn about the world around them and their place in it. They can then decide on what to do. They can use information on a tin of fish to choose whether to buy that brand or another. A villager who learns new facts about hygiene can build a proper toilet and so safeguard both his own health and that of the people around him.

 Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. ~Martin Luther King Jr.

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