Are they breaking through to the larger public? Again, that’s hard to know, because we can’t just rely on the mainstream news coverage that we looked at in this study to tell us whether or not they’re breaking through. I am sure PolitiFact and Factcheck have their own metrics for figuring out how much traffic they’re getting, but I’m not familiar with those. The larger problem is that it’s increasingly hard to talk about “breaking through” and persuading the public as a whole because of this greater polarization, politically and in terms of media choice. People now have the means to tune in to the news that’s most congenial to their views.
In the report you make a distinction between two journalistic tools, what you term “procedural objectivity” and “substantive objectivity.” What are these and how are they different?
Those are kind of overly academic terms; they’re not terms that I think journalists would use in a news meeting. We were casting around for a terminology, because everybody—journalists, scholars—throws around the term objectivity, and it’s a very complicated thing.
Procedural objectivity is following the formulas that promise that, at the end of the day, you will have a balanced, or at least not a biased, story. The he-said she-said formula. Substantive objectivity is a much harder and riskier thing to do. If all of the evidence points to something being false, then, no bones about it, that’s how you treat it. Don’t go through the motions of saying, ‘Well, but of course people believe something else on the other side.” That’s sticking your neck out, I think, for mainstream reporters.
Interestingly, in this study on death panels, there were a fair amount of stories where journalists just said it in their own words—“this is false, this is misleading.” So they’re perfectly comfortable doing it sometimes and under some circumstances. And I don’t even know how thoughtful that was because in many cases it wasn’t bolstered by evidence. There was no “Here’s three reasons why it’s false.” They were just saying it.
I was struggling to see the value of procedural objectivity at all by the time I got to the end Matt’s story on the report. It’s something that we’re taught from the very beginning of our careers or our studies. What is the value of it?
I think if I were one of my colleagues, who is a dyed-in-the-wool professional journalist teaching basic journalism classes, I would give a very different answer It is, as you know, a very tried-and-true way of playing it down the middle. I think the real value of that kind of reporting is that it’s easy, it’s formulaic—which in these times when reporters are pressed to do more and more with less and less, formulas are valuable—and it’s safe. It’s harder to be accused either by your editor, or by readers, or by critics on the other side of the aisle of being biased if you’ve covered both sides, and what they have to say.
So it’s a lot more valuable to the reporter than to the reader?
I like the way you put that.
You mentioned this earlier and it comes up often in the report: journalists who debunk a claim like death panels and then quote both sides anyway, can confuse readers. Is that something you found statistically or was it just an observation?
Based on these data we can’t say whether it actually confuses the reader. In fact, the next step we would like to take with this research is to very carefully construct news stories using these elements of debunking, not debunking, he-said she-said, no he-said she-said. Then we get that into an experimental lab setting where we could get people reading different kinds of formats and really find out whether people really are more confused at the end of the day in that situation. So I can’t really say it is confusing; it’s more of a hunch at this point.
The report seems to suggest that a straightforward debunking without any he-said she-said is a less confusing way to address misinformation. But in some cases you’re going to have to quote both sides, even if you are debunking a story, because the quote itself is the story.
In the birther issue, for example, the story was that Donald Trump, a prominent businessman, has come out and said the president was not born in this country, not that there was any chance this was true. To do the story you have to include the falsehood. Or do you just not do the story and thereby prevent the idea from being reinforced?