Study: Educating news consumers about the media can curb conspiracy theory appeal

THE MORE CONSUMERS UNDERSTAND the news media and how journalists do their jobs, the less likely they are to buy into conspiracy theories—even ones that might be “politically tempting,” a new study by a trio of journalism professors has found.

People who believe conspiracy theories are not “the proverbial nut job,” the study notes. Instead they are news consumers, both liberal and conservative, who may not understand how information is reported, what goes into writing a headline, or why some stories get more attention than others.

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The study— “News Media Literacy and Conspiracy Theory Endorsement,” published this month in Communication and the Public—is the first of its kind to make the connection between news media literacy and how conspiracy theories resonate with consumers, says Stephanie Craft, a University of Illinois journalism professor.

Craft, who co-authored the article with professors Seth Ashley of Boise State University and Adam Maksl of Indiana University Southeast, says the study “points to the power of greater news media knowledge in combating misinformation and disinformation such as fake news.” She tells CJR that it’s easier to teach people how the media works than it is to change their political viewpoints.

News literacy tends to focus on content, trying to critically read an article, but we believe that people need to understand the industry side and the larger relationship between news structure and democracy.

Craft and her colleagues surveyed 397 adults of different demographic backgrounds. Participants identified as some degree of “liberal,” “conservative,” or “moderate.” Each participant was presented with “a number of possible conspiracy narratives” that researchers classified as “liberal” or “conservative”—examples include the relationship between childhood vaccines and autism, and whether global warming is a hoax—and then asked “the extent to which they believed those narratives to be true.” News media literacy was measured by assessing thought process, how much control an individual perceives to have over media influences, and how much individuals know about the media institutions that produce the news.

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“It’s significant that knowledge about the news media—not beliefs about it, but knowledge of basic facts about structure, content and effects—is associated with less likelihood one will fall prey to a conspiracy theory, even a theory that is in line with one’s political ideology,” Craft says.

 

THE FINDINGS ARE PART of a growing body of academic research that examines how knowledge of the media ecosystem drives believability. Other recent studies have looked at whether people who better understand the news media engage in higher-level political discussions; the effectiveness of news media literacy public service announcements in political programming; and which audiences are most receptive to attempts to educate them about the media.

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News literacy tends to focus on content, trying to critically read an article, but we believe that people need to understand the industry side and the larger relationship between news structure and democracy,” says Melissa Tully, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Iowa.

News organizations often devote time and space to explaining data journalism and big investigative projects. When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in November that TripAdvisor removed warnings about rapes and other crimes at Mexico resorts from its site, the paper’s Raquel Rutledge explained in a video how she got the story. The Chicago Tribune routinely runs an explainer with its big investigative projects, as it did in the first part of its series on dangerous drug interactions, meticulously detailing the science behind a project that ultimately exposed how pharmacists miss the problematic combinations.

But news outlets aren’t as good about explaining the nuts and bolts of everyday journalism to an audience that is distrustful of the news. A study this month from The Poynter Institute  found that 69 percent of news consumers polled believe the media is biased and that news organizations “tend to favor one side” when “presenting the news dealing with political and social issues.” Almost half of those polled professed a belief that the news media fabricate stories about President Donald Trump “more than once in awhile.”

We focus a lot on audience, but we shouldn’t be putting all the burden on audience and citizens. It’s a complicated world. I do not blame people who get confused about what is going on.

As The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan noted in a recent column, the vetting process for using anonymous sources is not well known outside of journalism, which leads to larger issues with credibility.

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“Anonymous sourcing is one of the least-understood of the mysteries,” she wrote. Sullivan spoke with Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who told her, “A lot of people seem to think that when we use anonymous sources, we don’t even know who they are—that they’re anonymous to us.” The Post launched a new video series this month that explains how journalism works. The first episode focused on how reporters broke the story about allegations against Roy Moore—reporting that used anonymous sources, though not exclusively.

“We focus a lot on audience, but we shouldn’t be putting all the burden on audience and citizens,” Tully says. “It is a complicated world. I do not blame people who get confused about what is going on. I think what news organizations need to be much more transparent about how reporting is done.” She suggests that news websites use pop-up boxes to explain language like “sources close to” in a news article. “We need to try to get these little messages about news literacy in a place where we consume our content,” she adds.

 

We think it’s important for us to get out of our comfort zone and let people ask whatever they want. At some point, we always manage to explain ourselves a little bit in the process.

 

ELLIS SMITH, GENERAL MANAGER and editor at the The Hawk Eye in Burlington, Iowa, says he has been wrestling with the issue of transparency for years. “Everyone thinks we’re biased, that all the media is biased,” says Smith, who came to the Iowa paper in July from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, where he was digital editor. “A lot of times they’ll point to a column or opinion article and people do not know what those are. They do not anymore differentiate between editorial and the news pages.”

One of the things Smith has done as editor of The Hawk Eye is to make certain that opinion pieces, especially those posted on social media, are clearly labeled, in the headline and in the information about the author that is included. “On social media and the internet, a lot of stories will just pop up,” he says. “They are on an island. The stories need to have all that information we’d use to communicate in design and placement in the paper.”

The Rockford Register Star in Northern Illinois has also worked to explain how it reports the news to its readers. The paper’s top editors and publisher recently met with about 30 community members near a new public housing project that paper had meticulously covered. The meeting was one of several that the paper frequently holds, says Mark Baldwin, executive editor of the Register Star.

“We think it’s important for us to get out of our comfort zone and let people ask whatever they want,” says Baldwin, who also is a member of the news literacy committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “At some point, we always manage to explain ourselves a little bit in the process. You do that and people understand that you’re gathering from the ground level from people living the news, and that’s very powerful for people.”

For Craft, the conspiracy theory study points to the power of greater news media knowledge in combating misinformation and disinformation such as fake news. Journalists, she tells CJR, “ought to be or continue to be as transparent as possible about the methods and processes needed to provide that accurate, contextually rich and verified information to people. That sort of background knowledge is a useful tool that news audiences can employ in making sense of a sometimes chaotic news environment.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.