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Just in Time for the Fall Election News Frenzy

For practicing journalists in newsrooms and for student journalists learning to avoid misinformation, here’s an excellent resource: “Misinformation and Fact-Checking: Research Findings from Social Science” by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler.

It’s a research paper for the Media Policy Initiative of the New America Foundation; the link will bring you to a Columbia Journalism Review article about the report as well as a link to download a PDF copy of the report.

Don’t let the “research paper” title fool you. This 28-page document is readable (skimmable if you have to) and loaded with understandable recaps of research findings, pithy graphics and news media examples that deal with “the prevalence of misinformation in contemporary politics,” as the document summary states.

Below is a verbatim list from the document listing the social science findings detailed in the paper. When applicable, I’ve noted the chapter in parentheses from Overcoming Bias (OB) that complements or discusses the findings:

Summary of social science findings

  • Information deficits: (OB Chapter 2: “Habits of Thought”) Factual information can change policy preferences, but the effect is not consistent. Information seems to be most effective in shaping preferences about government spending. One drawback to these studies is that they generally do not directly measure changes in misperceptions.
  • Motivated reasoning: (OB Chapter 7: “Critical Decisions Before Deadline”) People’s evaluations of new information are shaped by their beliefs. Misperceptions seem to generally reflect sincere beliefs. Information that challenges these beliefs is generally unwelcome and can prompt a variety of compensatory responses. As a result, corrections are sometimes ineffective and can even backfire.
  • Ad watches: Studies examining campaign ad watch stories reached conflicting conclusions about the effectiveness of these segments.
  • Belief perseverance and continued influence: (OB Chapter 3: “Encountering the News”) Once a piece of information is encoded in memory, it can be very difficult to eliminate its effects on subsequent attitudes and beliefs.
  • Sources matter: (OB Chapter 5: “Understanding Culture, Understanding Sources”) The source of a given statement can have a significant effect on how the claim is interpreted. People are more receptive to sources that share their party affiliation or values and those that provide unexpected information.
  • Negations, affirmations, and fluency: (OB Chapter 8: “The Power of Words and Tone”) Attempts to correct false claims can backfire via two related mechanisms. First, repeating a false claim with a negation (e.g., “John is not a criminal”) leads people to more easily remember the core of the sentence (“John is a criminal”). Second, people may use the familiarity of a claim as a heuristic for its accuracy. If the correction makes a claim seem more familiar, the claim may be more likely to be seen as true.
  • Identity and race: (OB Chapter 1: “Context, Culture and Cognition”) When information about race or social identity is salient, it can undermine the effectiveness of corrections about public figures from different racial or cultural backgrounds.
  • Threats to control: When people feel a lack of control, they compensate with strategies that lead to greater acceptance of misperceptions.
  • Visuals: (OB Chapter 6: “Training the Reporter’s Eye”) Graphics may be an effective way to present corrective information about quantitative variables. However, graphical representations of the accuracy of political statements were found to have no effect on factual knowledge.


Trayvon Martin, Social Media and the Duke Lacrosse Case

Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin’s persona is changing before our eyes. In early news accounts, he was portrayed as a Skittle-eating kid who was healthy and well-adjusted, and news consumers knew him by this sweet-faced photo:


Trayvon Martin

With news outlets and blogs digging into Martin’s short life, news reports say that social media is providing another persona, one of a tough teen with shady connections. The photo that accompanies this new persona is reportedly from Martin’s online life:

So: Does Martin’s social media persona matter? Does it tell us anything factual and concrete? What about its effect on a potential jury; should the news media consider that scenario?

What about reports that Martin was suspended three times from high school? Does that matter to this story?

This evolving story has the potential to be another Duke Lacrosse case (Ch. 3, “Perilous Assumptions”), in which the news media, short on information but long on stereotypes and schemas, reported slanted stories. In the Duke case, lacrosse players at Duke University were accused of raping a dancer invited to a players’ house party. The dancer was black. The players were white–and all but declared guilty in the news media. But they were innocent, as it turned out.

When there is a vacuum of information, suggestions and assumptions based on character sometimes fill in for facts and evidence.

In the Martin case, what matters is what happened between Martin and George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who shot the unarmed Martin in the chest at close range on Feb. 26. Details are also emerging about the character of Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic. One news account describes Zimmerman as a “frustrated cop wannabe.”

The story is still very much in flux. Law enforcement officials are investigating whether or not Zimmerman acted in self defense. They are also trying to decipher whether Zimmerman used a racial epithet on the 911 call. As in the Duke case, the official decisions made in the investigation are the real story. After all, in the Duke Case, the district attorney who prosecuted the players ended up being disbarred for unethical conduct in his handling of the case. What, if anything, can journalists learn from the experience in the Duke case that also matters in the Martin case?

In this case, what does it mean to focus on the evidence, not the innuendos?

Other questions to consider: How should journalists report on the protests occurring nationwide calling for justice to be done in this case? Florida’s seven-year-old “Stand Your Ground” law removes a person’s duty to retreat when threatened with seriously bodily harm or death; is justice done if that is repealed? Is justice done if Zimmerman is arrested and charged? Is justice done only if Zimmerman is found guilty?

These questions provide the opportunity for journalists to report the story in a 360-degree manner (see Ch. 5 on the Rashomon Technique), interviewing citizens from all walks of life about what this case symbolizes to them, about race relations in America and about what justice means.

The Duke lacrosse case taught the news media and news consumers alike not to try to fit stories into ready-made molds. It’s unclear what the Martin story is as yet, but let’s not relive past mistakes.


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