The journalist as referee: How audiences react when reporters evaluate competing claims

When reporting on competing factual claims, journalists can call foul. Acting as a referee, journalists can analyze which statement squares with the evidence. But should journalists do it? Are audiences better served when journalists take on this role?

There are risks in this sort of reporting. Audiences may judge the reporting as biased and come away more deeply believing incorrect information, despite a journalist’s best attempt to provide strong evidence. This is known as the “backfire effect.”

Recent research provides some guidance on how news organizations can weigh in on competing factual claims to reduce the chances of backfire effects.

A new study shows that “adjudicating,” or evaluating the merits and truthfulness of competing factual claims, can have benefits for newsrooms and readers

The Annenberg Public Policy Center is probing how using credible sources, describing scientific processes, and presenting information in stimulating ways can help people learn scientific information that may contradict partisan claims. Other researchers have shown that strategically selecting the images and text surrounding a factual correction can minimize incorrect impressions.

And recent research by Louisiana State University Professor Raymond Pingree and University of Wisconsin-Madison Professors Dominique Brossard and Douglas McLeod demonstrates that “adjudicating,” or evaluating the merits and truthfulness of competing factual claims, can have benefits for newsrooms and readers.

Audiences reacted positively when a journalist provided evidence to arbitrate competing factual claims in a story. The 436 undergraduate students participating in the experiment rated an article including evidence to resolve a factual dispute as less biased and as more credible than an article containing competing claims but no evidence to resolve them. The students seeing the adjudication version also reported that they would be more likely to read another news story about related issues.

The chart below shows how the two groups responded. Measures range from 0 (biased, not credible, did not satisfy a need for information, unlikely to read another story) to 10 (unbiased, credible, did satisfy a need for information, and likely to read another story). A higher number signifies more people in that reader group agreeing with the statement.

Mean response for article without adjudication* Mean response for article with adjudication*
Find the article unbiased, credible 5.23 5.64
Believe that the article satisfied a need for information 3.80 4.45
Likelihood of reading another story about related issues 5.56 5.97

Data Source: Raymond James Pingree, Dominique Brossard, & Douglas M. McLeod. (2014). Effects of journalistic adjudication on factual beliefs, news evaluations, information seeking, and epistemic political efficacy. Mass Communication and Society, 17(5), 615-638, DOI: 10.1080/15205436.2013.821491

AMERICAN PRESS INSTITUTE

The study involved a story about a protest over labor and environmental issues. In the study, half of the participants read a news story in which sources provided two competing versions of the facts, but the journalist did not mediate the disagreement. The other half read the same article, with the addition of three paragraphs. The new paragraphs provided well-researched assessments of the competing claims. The assessment confirmed some of each side’s claims, but invalidated others.

Audiences reading the new paragraphs came away with more factually correct beliefs, regardless of their political leanings. There was no evidence of backfire effects.

Readers see 'he said, she said' reporting as less credible than stories that adjudicate the arguments Tweet This

Although the study results were mainly positive, one group of readers reported that the new information arbitrating the conflicting claims made politics seem more confusing. People uninterested in the labor and environmental concerns that were the focus of the article said the additional information made it difficult to figure out what was true and what was false in the world of politics. This was not the case, however, among those interested in the topics covered in the article.

Pingree and his collaborators looked at a particular situation: a newspaper article about a corporate protest that got out of hand. The focus is important because the article did not emphasize partisan conflict — it was about a protest. Further, the adjudication was balanced — some of the evidence uncovered by the journalist favored the corporation and some of the evidence favored the protesters.

In the everyday practice of journalism, these circumstances won’t always arise. In some situations, the issues will be more blatantly partisan. In other situations, the facts will favor one side. The value of the study done by Pingree and his colleagues is it shows that efforts to resolve factual disputes can avoid backfire effects and are appreciated by readers, at least in these circumstances.

Collectively, these recent efforts provide important insights on the benefits of adjudication and best practices for newsrooms engaged in this type of reporting.


Study highlights

  • An article assessing competing claims and finding evidence partially favoring both sides is seen as more credible and less biased than an article not adjudicating the claims.
  • The adjudicating article produced more correct beliefs than the non-adjudicating article.
  • Those uninterested in the article topic found the world of politics more complicated after reading the adjudicating article versus the non-adjudicating article.


Next steps

Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to evaluate other types of adjudication, using the following as starting points:

  • Analyze how traffic, social shares, and commenting respond to articles that do, and do not, include adjudications of factual claims.
  • Examine other types of adjudications, such as those where the facts clearly favor one side and not the other.
  • Determine the newsroom effort required to do this work and how the work could be more efficiently done.


Citation

Raymond James Pingree, Dominique Brossard, & Douglas M. McLeod. (2014). Effects of journalistic adjudication on factual beliefs, news evaluations, information seeking, and epistemic political efficacy. Mass Communication and Society, 17(5), 615-638, DOI: 10.1080/15205436.2013.821491

  1. The American Press Institute’s fact-checking coverage
  2. Information about the fact-checking movement from the New America Foundation