Harold Camping was wrong about the rapture happening this past weekend, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever admit to being wrong in the way most of us know he is. The same goes for hardcore birthers, the people who believed “death panels” were part of healthcare legislation, and those convinced that vaccines cause autism.
All are wrong, and demonstrably so. But to simply dismiss them as misguided, gullible, or ignorant is to expose our ignorance of ourselves.
Their refusal to bend to facts and reality is an innately human trait. Within all of us exists the capacity—the propensity—to reject facts that contradict closely held views and beliefs. Once a human being is convinced of something, it’s incredibly difficult to get him to change his mind.
This is a significant challenge for the press. If you believe, as most journalists do, that we play an essential role in providing quality information to society, then knocking down rumors and combating misinformation is part of our mission and daily work. Thus the rise of fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, and the increased attempts by news organizations to fact-check statements and claims made by politicians and public figures.
This is important work that helps inform and educate. Or at least it has always seemed that way to me.
I’m suddenly feeling rather powerless and conflicted because, over the last few weeks, I’ve been familiarizing myself with a growing body of evidence that suggests the mainstream press is ineffective at combating misinformation and debunking falsehoods, and in many cases can reinforce and help spread misinformation.
Mother Jones recently published a fascinating article that provides a comprehensive survey of the science behind why people reject facts, why belief trumps evidence. It opens by quoting respected Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
The story reported that:
an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.
The latest and perhaps most relevant piece of research is “Debunking Sarah Palin: Mainstream News Coverage of ‘Death Panels’,” a paper being presented at the annual conference of the International Communication Association, taking place right now in Boston.
Louisiana State University researchers Regina G. Lawrence and Matthew L. Schafer gathered a sample of close to 800 newspaper articles and transcripts from network news broadcasts that dealt with Sarah Palin’s false 2009 claim about “death panels.” (CJR’s Joel Meares has an extensive interview with Lawrence here.)
“After looking at [our findings], I really just don’t think that mainstream media can correct misconceptions that people hold on to tightly,” Schafer told me. “ Even when people are presented with factual information that goes against what they believe, the normal supposition would be that it would weaken their grasp of their reality—but they actually hold on tighter.”
Their research saw them analyze reporting to see how newspapers and TV dealt with the fake concept of death panels. They found that:
in 39% of news stories, the reporter labeled the claim ‘false’ or used some cognate description. In almost two-thirds of news stories, reporters abstained from using any evaluative term assessing the truthfulness of the ‘death panels’ claim. Meanwhile, the editorial pages tilted against the ‘death panels’ claim, with 58% of editorialists and letter writers calling the claim false and less than 2% defending it.
So less than half of the news reports flatly stated that death panels were a fake invention of Palin’s. The authors view this as a high number. In an article about their research findings, they write that the percentage of articles that call death panels false is “surprising considering many journalists’ own conceptions that they act as neutral arbiters.”
That orientation—which comes from the notion of objectivity—also helps explain a rather strange approach taken by some journalists who dared to declare death panels false. The researches found that “in 30% of cases where journalists reported in their own words that the claim was false, they nonetheless included either side’s arguments as to why their side was right. This often just confuses the reader.”
Not a very good approach to debunking, is it? The researchers also found that in 72 percent of stories “the reporter labeled the claim false but did so without offering clarification from the legislative language.”