News knowledge as inoculation

Following the 2016 election—and the tsunami of digital disinformation it had loosed upon the world—we surveyed more than eighteen hundred people about their knowledge of news gathering and reporting procedures: everything from the placement of editorials in mainstream outlets to the purpose of news anchors and press releases. Procedural news knowledge is dispersed; some people know more than others about actual news practices. The role such knowledge plays in assessing suspect content is clear: according to our responses, the more people know about the media, the better they are able to identify and resist online disinformation efforts, including fabricated headlines and covert advertising attempts. As we conclude in our recently published study, citizens who have a developed understanding of how news is constructed and how mainstream media operate are better able to detect untruth online.

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In two national surveys, we asked US adults to answer questions about the practices of institutions that produce news, editorial procedures that generate content, and distinctions between news gathering and advocacy. Although two out of three respondents knew that most media outlets in the US are for-profit businesses, 18 percent admitted they did not. The remaining respondents thought most US media are either owned by the government (8 percent) or are non-profit businesses (7 percent). When asked in what section a newspaper’s editorial staff endorses candidates and expresses opinions about current events, 62 percent selected the correct answer: the editorial page. Sixty-nine percent of respondents knew a press release to be a written statement or short video about a newsworthy event, given out to reporters by an official or public relations specialist; other respondents, however, believed it to be a short news piece written or produced by a reporter (17 percent), an opinion piece written by a syndicated columnist (8 percent), or a paid advertisement that appears in newspapers and on news websites with the label “paid advertisement” (6 percent). 

News experts were more likely than novices to dispute suspect information—a dynamic that held even when we controlled for age, gender, education, and interest in news. Revealingly, people with greater news expertise were also more inclined to see disinformation as a grave threat to society.

We then exposed participants to a series of political news headlines (some true, some fabricated) or to one of two sponsored articles that included a disclosure indicating that the “story” was really an advertisement. True headlines included: in February 2017, President Trump reversed an Obama-era regulation that made it easier to block the sale of firearms to people with mental illnesses. False headlines included: Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president during the 2016 campaign. 

Respondents with greater procedural news knowledge were significantly better able to distinguish fake news headlines from real and to correctly identify sponsored content. For example, while 17 percent of “news experts” (those who correctly answered at least seven of the ten questions) were able to identify sponsored content as advertising, not a news article, only 5 percent of news novices were able to do so. Moreover, just 9 percent of those respondents identified as having greater news expertise shared or “liked” suspect information, compared to 25 percent of news novices. News experts were also more likely than novices to dispute suspect information—a dynamic that held even when we controlled for age, gender, education, and interest in news. Revealingly, people with greater news expertise were also more inclined to see disinformation as a grave threat to society, lending support to the inoculation-conferring properties of media knowledge. 

Cross-national findings from the University of Oxford’s Reuters Digital News Report reinforce the information value of news knowledge. Respondents with an advanced understanding of the workings of the press report consuming news from a wider range of sources—which are more likely to be mainstream in orientation—and rely on a broader range of credibility cues, such as the outlet’s brand or who shared the news link, when deciding whether to click through to a story.

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At a time when many adults and even digital natives are unable to reliably discriminate between legitimate news and fabricated assertions, the need for renewed appreciation of journalism’s central role in society—and hard facts about hard news—is more pressing than ever. Fortunately, industry practitioners can play a critical role in the effort to educate audiences. Recent initiatives by press institutes, media-research centers, and news organizations themselves to explicitly describe the editorial process to audiences while reporting on the day’s events—teaching while informing—are a positive step toward building news fluency and regaining media trust. 

Tackling such a pervasive problem will require a new appreciation for the benefits that news knowledge brings. By reducing demand for baseless content, news knowledge can help turn back the rising tide of disinformation, but only if we take a more hands-on approach to educating citizens about the actual workings of the mainstream media.

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Michelle A. Amazeen and Erik P. Bucy are the authors. Dr. Amazeen is an assistant professor at Boston University. Dr. Bucy is the Marshall and Sharleen Formby Regents Professor of Strategic Communication at Texas Tech University.