How a Cautious Media Can Hurt Society

The American media tends to be very conservative in responding to conflicting information, particularly when the information comes from opposing political parties. News outlets like to put all the information out there and assume people can decide for themselves. When a clear truth-or-lie call is necessary, the consensus seems to be that the most important thing is not to call a truth a lie, even if that means being slow to call a lie a lie. Unfortunately, two new studies suggest that there are major drawbacks to playing it slow when somebody is spreading questionable information.

The first study, which was led by Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas of the University of Kent, found that being exposed to conspiracy theories can lead people to feel politically powerless and disengage from the political process.

The current studies explored the social consequences of exposure to conspiracy theories. In Study 1, participants were exposed to a range of conspiracy theories concerning government involvement in significant events such as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Results revealed that exposure to information supporting conspiracy theories reduced participants’ intentions to engage in politics, relative to participants who were given information refuting conspiracy theories. This effect was mediated by feelings of political powerlessness.

A second experiment supported the initial findings, and it also showed that false information can influence behavior that’s specifically related to the information.

In Study 2, participants were exposed to conspiracy theories concerning the issue of climate change. Results revealed that exposure to information supporting the conspiracy theories reduced participants’ intentions to reduce their carbon footprint, relative to participants who were given refuting information, or those in a control condition. This effect was mediated by powerlessness with respect to climate change, uncertainty, and disillusionment. Exposure to climate change conspiracy theories also influenced political intentions, an effect mediated by political powerlessness. The current findings suggest that conspiracy theories may have potentially significant social consequences, and highlight the need for further research on the social psychology of conspiracism.

The second study, which was conducted by Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler and Peter Ubel, further illustrates the dangers of allowing people to consume questionable information. Nyhan and his colleagues examined how people responded to accurate information that disputed Sarah Palin’s claims about death panels. They found that among Palin supporters with high political knowledge the information didn’t correct false beliefs. Instead, it made people more likely to believe death panels were real.

One could always argue that the instant the words “death panels” left Palin’s mouth certain people were bound to hear it and believe it was the eternal truth. But it seems likely that if the media had been quicker to renounce the idea some of these Palin supporters could have been disabused of the notion before it sunk in. The same is true of moments when seemingly legitimate people claim that climate change is a hoax or that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen. That’s not the say the media should always declare one side right and the other wrong, but it should be more mindful of the fact that relaying questionable information without expressing proper doubts is harmful.

I think one reason the media fails to understand this is that the industry has an inflated sense of self-importance. Reporters believe that because people are constantly paying attention, as long as they eventually tell people what’s true everybody will emerge with accurate information. Unfortunately, this belief is based on a poor understanding of human nature. Many people don’t form opinions by actively consuming news coverage, they form opinions by using the amount of coverage something gets as a heuristic for determining its truth and importance. And as Nyhan’s study shows, the sequence of information doesn’t always matter. Just because somebody gets updated information that’s supposedly more accurate, it doesn’t mean the new information will replace the old inaccurate information.

In the last year the movement to end false-equivalence and create more decisive media coverage has gained a lot of steam. These studies should help confirm that the movement in on the right track. It bears repeating that this doesn’t mean that media organizations should always loudly declare that something is true or false the instant in enters our discourse. But at the margin the media should be less conservative in allowing questionable information to linger in the public sphere.
Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. (2012). The social consequences of conspiracism: Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases intentions to engage in politics and to reduce one’s carbon footprint British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12018

Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., & Ubel, P. (2012). The Hazards of Correcting Myths About Health Care Reform Medical Care DOI: 10.1097/MLR.0b013e318279486b


2 Responses to How a Cautious Media Can Hurt Society

  1. This stuff is a big deal. We who live under corporatism are the targets and victims of the most powerful and sophisticated propaganda machine that has ever existed. It delivers via multiple levels and multiple channels simultaneously; there is something in it for everyone. Therefore it is also inconsistent and often conflicts.

  2. The shorthand for this is that there’s a growing gulf between media and journalism.

    Media = entertainment, no editorial effort required.
    Journalism = taking a stand, investigating and stating facts, editorial point of view.

    Given the growing number/volume of news-scraping sites, it’s no longer clear to me who, if anyone, is producing journalism any more. There are still journalists who randomly make themselves known with investigative stories, but the bulk seems to have devolved into “this is what someplace else reported that someone said about something.” I don’t think that’s news; it’s barely gossip.

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