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Research on journalism, fact-checking and politics: What to watch

Do those post-debate discussions on cable news programs make any difference in how their audience views presidential candidates? Do reporters frame their police-shooting stories differently, depending on whether the suspect is black or white? Can fact-checking persuade people to change their minds about candidates?

Those are some of the topics that media and political science experts have been exploring, and hundreds of them presented early findings at the annual Midwest Political Science Association conference in Chicago earlier this month. The media’s role in politics and society was a major theme this year — and more specifically, the election of Donald Trump, “fake news” and misinformation.

Many of the studies presented at the conference are in the final stages of completion. Here’s some research to watch; many of the projects will be completed and published in the coming months.

  • Toby Bolsen of Georgia State University and James Druckman of Northwestern University studied whether people who doubted facts about climate change could be persuaded if they know that scientists agreed on those facts. Among their initial findings: Well-informed, partisan voters became even more doubtful when told about scientific consensus. Read more.
  • In an experiment conducted by three scholars, people were asked to watch the first presidential debate in fall 2016, along with post-debate coverage on MSNBC or Fox News. The researchers found that the commentators’ remarks had a “strong effect” on the volunteers’ perception of the candidates’ performance. Read more about the study from Ethan Porter and Kimberly Gross of George Washington University and Thomas Julian Wood of Ohio State University.
  • Three researchers who have led several studies on misinformation and fact-checking are examining fake news and the 2016 election. Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, Andrew Guess of New York University, and Jason Reifler of Exeter College are looking at real-time reader behavior and consumption of fake news during the campaign. (This research is partly funded by the American Press Institute.)
  • What sources do readers of fact checks trust most? Business people, government agencies, academics? Leslie Caughell of Virginia Wesleyan College is studying how to make fact checks more persuasive, particularly to resistant readers. (This research is partly funded by the American Press Institute.)
  • Researcher Eric Charles Vorst of the University of Missouri studied how Twitter and other social networks became “polarized” immediately after controversial events during the election, such as crime issues and reports of Trump’s misogynist comments about women. Read more.
  • David Redlawsk of the University of Delaware is examining how voters process fact checks. “We know relatively little about how voters perceive and process fact checks,” said Redlawsk. In this experiment, people’s reactions — including reading time and voting behavior — were measured after they read fact checks.

“We know people are engaging in some kind of mental gymnastics but we don’t know why.”

  • Caitlin Davies of Stony Brook University and D.J. Flynn of Dartmouth are studying how fact-checking of misinformation affects people’s political views — especially as it relates to motivated reasoning, or choosing to believe only information that supports an existing view. “We know people are engaging in some kind of mental gymnastics” when they ignore facts that contradict an emotion-based belief, Davies said in explaining the reason for the research, “but we don’t know why.”
  • Christopher Lucas, a Harvard graduate student, is studying local news reporting of police-involved shootings, and whether the race of the victim affects the focus of the reporter’s story.
  • Taleed El-Sabawi, a researcher at Ohio State University, is analyzing the role of the media in calling attention to heroin addiction.

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