They declared death panels false but didn’t explain why. No context, no proof. And other journalists called them false only to quote sources saying they were true, or close to true. Again, probably not the best way to shoot down misinformation, especially when you know that decades of research tells us that it’s very difficult to change someone’s point of view on a controversial issue like this.

Then there’s the fact that close to 60 percent of the stories examined offered no debunking whatsoever. Many of these reports treated talk about death panels like a legitimate debate in the public sphere.

It seems that a good number of reporters are either unsure or conflicted about how to include a basic element of fact checking or debunking in their work. (Or their bosses are.) Is it really necessary to bring in the “other side” when all they’re doing is propagating a falsehood? It seems some newsrooms think so.

All of this helps explain why public opinion about the truth of death panels did not change during the weeks of coverage evaluated by the researchers. It remained steady, according to Schafer.

“Our data indicate that the mainstream news, particularly newspapers, debunked ‘death panels’ early, fairly often, and in a variety of ways, though some were more direct than others,” he and his co-author write in their paper. “Nevertheless, a significant portion of the public accepted the claim as truth …”

The researches found that as time wore on, fewer news stories treated the death panels as an issue of debate. The he said/she said stories began to disappear.

“By our strict measure, 48% of news stories during the first week after Palin’s Facebook post treated the claim in he said/she said fashion, reporting sources who both decried and promoted it,” they write. “By the second week, only 22% did so, by the third week, 17%, and from the fourth through the sixth week, only 7 to 9% of stories did so.”

Yet public opinion stayed relatively constant over those same weeks. The mainstream, influential American press couldn’t move the meter.

”Rumor Bomb”

One reason for the inability to change public opinion of course relates to the human bias towards not changing our closely held views. (When the apocalypse didn’t come, Harold Camping declared he’d miscalculated and it’s actually due this October…) Another reason is that journalists seem neither willing, nor particularly good at, debunking misinformation.

There’s a third reason, which is summarized nicely in this section of the research paper:

But another way of looking at the “death panels” controversy is to demonstrate that the mainstream media themselves bore some responsibility for the claim’s persistence. The “death panels” claim resembles what one author has called a “rumor bomb”: a strategic catchphrase intentionally designed to undermine serious public deliberation by playing on public uncertainty or fear (Harsin, 2008). Because such claims are not defined with any degree of specificity, he argues, the ability to rebut the rumor with facts is hampered. Such rumors present a “crisis of verification” in which “the reporter is unable to verify the claim through…other reliable sources, in accordance with professional rules of reporting and codes of ethics,” yet because such rumors make for interesting news and are easily spread through new media outlets, they are disseminated anyway—thus accomplishing their goal (2008, p. 165).

Death panels was a catchy meme, and Palin delivered it without specifying which part of the legislation she was referring to.

“It’s easier to correct what we call a ‘verifiable fact,’” Schafer said, “but if you play with something more ambiguous like death panels it’s just a great way for skilled political communicators to take a position that can’t necessarily be refuted because it has no definition.”

These factors played a role in overriding the attempts to debunk death panels. The more you wrote about how death panels were false or misleading, the more people kept hearing about, picturing, and thinking about death panels. It unleashed a vicious cycle.

Media reports, regardless of their content, can sometimes work to reinforce a falsehood.

We in the press, the people who are supposed to apply verification and be rigorous with what we publish and broadcast, can actually work against the process of correcting and informing people. We amplify falsehoods even as we work to combat them.

One prescription for handling this kind of situation is, as one researcher quoted in the paper said, to “create negative publicity for the elites who are promoting misinformation, increasing the costs for making false claims in the public sphere.”

Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.