Did he say it? Didn’t he say it? Did he mean it? He was simply reporting what he received in the desk tray.
Now, let’s distinguish facts from opinions.
Let’s begin by considering a fact defined as something said to have happened or supposed to be true. Still, lets divide them into three kinds of facts; 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.
These are facts which are proved and accepted as true by everyone. They include such statements as “The world is round”, “the Malawi Kwacha has been devalued” or ” Joyce Banda is President of the Republic of Malawi”.
You could check these facts yourself, but they are as of today so universally accepted as true that you do not need to. Of course, facts can change. It is a proven fact that Joyce Banda is President at the time this paragraph is being written, but she will one day be succeeded by somebody else.
When she is, the fact will become untrue, but for the moment it is a proven, accepted fact. You can rely on proven facts such as this with confidence. They do not depend for their truth on who said them, so you do not need to attribute them.
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 tells Parliament that 40 billion kwacha was raised from taxes last year, you can treat this as a probable 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.
People occasionally make statements which seem on the surface to be untrue, but which might just be true. A claim that “The incumbent DPP presidential candidate has secretly married a west African old fashion model” may seem highly unlikely, but it just might be true.
You must always check such statements before airing them, and never blab 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.
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 us there should be two main categories of opinions.
These are conclusions which can be verified (shown to be true) or shown to be false. People who predict the results of a Champions League final between Chelsea nd Bayern Muncic draw conclusions from what they know about football and European trophies.
They may say that Bayern will win the forth coming final. It is their opinion. Once the final is over, that opinion is proved to be either correct or incorrect, depending on whether Bayern 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 Chelsea’s fitness); they might have failed to consider a relevant fact (the ground was muddy and Chelsea 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 (Bayern had a strong home support base, 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.
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 at College of Medicine gives an expert opinion when he tells an inquest that he believes a person was killed before being thrown from a tow storey window.
He has examined the body and found that there were no fractured bones. 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.
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 a vox pop with people on the street, asking what they think about the future of DPP with Peter Mutharika, 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 tobacco buyer might give the opinion that recent kwacha devaluation is a good thing; a civil servant might give the opinion that it is a bad thing. To understand value judgments, you need to know who is making them and why. Such opinions must be attributed.
So in life we 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 newspapers, radios or television stations as a useful way of getting their personal opinions across to people.
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 MCP president who says that the newly formed 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.
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