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Don’t give up on the fact-resistant: Tips to break the grip of misinformation

“Why do Trump’s supporters continue to believe misinformation, even in the face of fact-checking?”

That’s the question posed by Carlos Maza via this Vox video last week. In seven minutes, he constructs a dismal American persona that is obstinate, politically tribal, and so certain they’re right even when they’re so stunningly wrong.

These people are real, and they’re not just Trump supporters. They are flat Earth supporters, white supremacy supporters, conspiracy theory supporters. They are people — on the left, right and in the middle — who support their own “sense of self” over facts and reality, as Dartmouth researcher Brendan Nyhan says.

Choose your own takeaway after watching the video, but for me, the most important message still is this: Facts aren’t reaching or impacting people the way they should. And journalists need to consider and reconsider the way they deliver those facts.

In the U.S., modern-day fact-checking bloomed in the early- to mid-2000s. The intent then is the intent now: assessing the accuracy of statements made by candidates, politicians and others who hold power in a democracy; ensuring that voters have the factual information they need to make their best decisions; and all the while, adhering to the strictest ethics and principles of journalism.

Let’s accept that, here in 2017, we live in even more interesting times. The traditional presentation of facts that worked in 2004 or 2008 presidential politics might not produce the best possible results today.

Let’s also accept that by “results” we mean factual reporting that makes an impression on the largest possible number of people. (If that’s not the goal, then what’s the point of doing the particularly difficult work of accountability journalism?)

Journalism that tries harder to reach the fact-resistant: What does that even look like?  In a recent strategy study, the American Press Institute looked closely at 11 projects produced by newsrooms across the country. These projects successfully tackled controversial and complicated issues using methods that went beyond traditional, lengthy, written narratives.

What does this have to do with Maza and his depressing depiction of the American mindset? Experts ranging from journalists to brain scientists offered some ideas for our study that could address some of his concerns. Here are some of those potential strategies to consider.

Attack issues, not people. There’s solid research on this: Conservatives are far less enamored of fact-checking and political accountability reporting than are people who lean liberal. So when Republicans encounter a story that tags “their” candidate as a liar — literally or figuratively — that story is DOA to them. Can the story be reframed to examine the facts around the issue being discussed, rather than to examine the veracity of someone’s singular statement?

Aim for the middle. “Target the people who are unsure,” says Tali Sharot, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London and an MIT visiting professor. “The most likely people to be swayed are the people in the middle” — those who aren’t sure what to believe. While the Vox video mentions poll results that don’t seem reflect any “middle,” remember to…

Have a respectful skepticism about those polls and surveys.  It’s worth contemplating whether our traditional instruments of social measurement are able to slice through today’s complex layers of opinion, hope and disaffection. Some polls were hysterically, historically wrong in the 2016 elections. So it’s more important now than ever that journalists know how to read polls and surveys. What was the sample size? Demographics? Margin of error? Where did the respondents come from? Amazon’s  MTurk? An online poll? University classrooms? How were the questions phrased, exactly?

Understand that people want to be right. In the Vox video, Nyhan points out that people hate to be wrong. What’s the converse of that? Yes: People love to be right. Knowledge is power, says Sharot. And a fact-checked story that pointedly says “Here is the correct information” or “If you believe x, you’re right,” makes people more likely to proudly share it with friends and followers.

People prefer positive messages, so find a place for them. Andrew Newberg, author of “Words Can Change Your Brain,” recommends using three positive words, statements or ideas for each one that has a negative connotation. Yes, this can be tricky for many reasons. But try mentioning, when it makes sense, what went right: “The candidate’s press release and website have the correct information, though her statement was incorrect.”

Recognize emotion. Anger, fear, pride, a deep need to be part of a “tribe” — these are real emotions that affect people’s ability to process and accept facts. Yet, facts are often presented in a colorless, sterile, rigid manner with no recognition of the human impact. Writing about immigration? Make a point to note that there are highly anxious people who are convinced that immigrants have taken or will take away their jobs. Doing a story about vaccines? Acknowledge the grief of parents who deeply believe their child’s disability was caused by vaccinations.

Always be right. Trust in journalism has sunk to historically low levels. So this may be the worst point in history for journalists to make mistakes.

First, stop the hyperbole that makes people, especially partisans, turn away. From the very first sentence of the Vox video, for example:

“Donald Trump has made roughly 500 false statements in his first 200 days in office. …He’s turned news outlets into full-time fact-checking organizations.”  

Actually, no one knows how many false statements Trump has made; no one is checking every utterance, every Tweet, every waking hour. And of those that have been fact-checked, not everyone is considered “false” but somewhere on a very wide spectrum that includes “without context” and “indecipherable sentence structure.”

Secondly, stop falling for fake news.  Learn the red flags.

Do your follow-ups first. In the Vox piece, Nyhan points out that traditional journalistic “follow-up” stories — which typically provide more context and facts — “often get much less of an audience and the damage may already have been done.” Instead of racing to publish something about a presidential misstatement, take the time to investigate and contextualize the very first story. Swamp the misinformed stories with factual stories.

 Journalistic fact-checking provides a brilliant opportunity to show news consumers how journalism is done.

Consider your sources. The Vox video mentions the journalistic tradition of using White House officials as sources who can provide more depth and detail. That’s not quite happening in this White House. “The idea that we must interview representatives of the administration only works if there’s a shared commitment, however limited, to an underlying basis in fact,” said Nyhan. These officials stick like Super Glue to their talking points, accurate or not. (For reference, FactCheck.org keeps a running list of current “talking points.”)

Talking points are boring, so until journalists figure out a line of questioning that will actually elicit real answers from White House operatives, who can stand in? Consider academics and researchers, suggests a new study that looked at audiences’ level of trust in a variety of sources.

Every time, teach news literacy “organically.”  Journalistic fact-checking provides a brilliant opportunity to show news consumers how journalism is done. Be transparent, from everything to the “bio” readers get when they click on a byline to the actual conversations with news sources. Look at every piece of data and transcripts of every interview used to create a story. Is there a compelling reason not to share all of the material with readers? If not, start uploading and linking.

These are suggestions that any journalist or media outlet can try without much pain, effort or risk. Doing them consistently could make a difference in whether the tough work of fact-checking and accountability journalism has a real impact, today or in 2020.

Let us know how it goes.

All photos: Flickr Creative Commons
  • Norbert

    ‘Attack issues, not people. There’s solid research on this: Conservatives are far less enamored of fact-checking and political accountability reporting than are people who lean liberal.’
    Guess what, I don’t believe you. I really have to wonder what you call “solid research.” No I don’t, I know. In other words, I am using the same tools to examine your ideas as you are proposing for websites that you don’t approve of.

  • This election truly brought to mind the term “Faith Based Politics” the kind of political reality you don’t have to prove – you just have to believe in. For more on this look at Religion 101…..What is worrying is why people would rather embrace a dubious certainty than adopt critical thinking which could ultimately help them more.

  • Tom Hartman

    When you have a population where a majority of the people believe a virgin had a son, or that the Red Sea parted or someone flew to Mecca on a magic carpet, you have a population primed to believe any kind of falsehood presented.

    • Norbert

      What about Red China, or dozens of other examples? There, you had millions of people thinking that the sun rose and set on Mao. Now that I think of it, You were probably one of them.

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