We tested this idea in a scenario involving a fictional politician named Don Swensen whose unexpected resignation from office sparked rumors of an investigation. Presenting respondents with credible evidence that the rumors were false, in the form of a letter from prosecutors stating he was not being investigated or charged, was somewhat persuasive. But offering an alternative explanation for the resignation—Swensen left to take a job as president of a local university—was better:

Of course, convincing explanations of events are not always available to journalists—some outcomes are difficult or impossible to explain—but this finding suggests that alternative causal accounts should be prominently featured when possible.

Finally, we examined the hypothesis that the use of negations like “not guilty” could inadvertently reinforce the characterization they are intended to refute. In this case, when we contrasted headlines and article text describing a politician who was charged in a bribery trial as either “not guilty” or “exonerated,” we found no statistically significant differences in how favorably he was viewed or in perceptions of his honesty. Given the concerns raised in previous research, however, we still recommend avoiding the use of negations when possible.

Based on these results, we offer the following recommendations in our report:

  • Journalists should seek out experts who are speaking out against a misperception held by their ideological or partisan allies. Corrections by such sources should be more effective than ones from outlets and experts who may be seen as having ideological or partisan motives.
  • When possible, reporters should not just state that a claim purporting to explain an event or outcome is false. They should instead offer an alternative causal explanation that will help readers understand why the event occurred and hopefully displace the previous, mistaken explanation.
  • Stating a correction in the form of a negation may reinforce the misperception in question. Using language that affirms the correct fact is a safer approach.

Let’s hope these techniques work! With coverage that takes a smarter, more effective approach to combating misperceptions, journalists can help make the public better informed.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.