Friday, August 14, 2009

Misinformation and Outright Lies

If you spend any time reading here, you already know that I am quite invested in the exploration of how popular media align themselves with the viewers' preconceptions to create predictable and ideologically desirable experiences that are marketable.

This morning CJR has an excellent post reviewing research on countering misinformation and outright lying in the media. The short version is that, one, it is very hard to do, and two, when you do counter, people are just as likely to believe what they prefer to from the two now competing pieces of information before them then they are to believe your counter argument.

In other words, if you want to believe that Obama is setting up death panels, then you probably are going to continue in your belief in spite of evidence to the contrary. Here are a few quotes that get right to the point.

Once factually inaccurate ideas take hold in people’s minds, there are no reliable strategies to dislodge them—especially from the minds of those for whom the misinformation is most ideologically convenient...

Efforts to refute misinformation are most effective when a false claim can be countered (sic) a clear-cut alternative narrative—something that creates a mental image “as vivid, as strong” as what you’re trying to negate...

An even better press strategy, he believes, is “naming and shaming”—calling out the people who help falsehoods advance, and cutting them off from media access. Such an approach might not change minds on a particular issue, Nyhan said, but it would “increas[e] the reputational costs” of spreading lies, and thus create a climate in which truthfulness and accuracy were more prized.

And finally:

So where does all this leave the individual reporter, working on a specific story for a general audience, who wants to debunk a false statement made by a subject? “The best chance,” Schul said, “is to tell a good story—you want to create a causal chain that links the new information to evidence the perceiver already knows so that it can modify the old interpretation [with] the one you wish to implant.”

You can read the full post here. The chief problem with this entire conversation lies in the fact that it still fails to completely deal with the economies within which journalists do their work. There are clear systems of financial rewards and penalties within the industry. The kinds of watchdog journalism that are advocated on CJR, and these are generally ones that I agree with, are not necessarily financially supported by the audience.

It seems likely to me that there are simply more people who want to consume media that reinforces their preconceptions than there are people who want to support a journalism industry that would be more neutral and therefore more confusing and less reassuring in its political orientation. But still, this is the work that has to be done. At least for a long enough time that a new market emerges as an alternative to the MSNBC vs Fox News climate that we consume today.

Not coincidentally, CJR is a not-for-profit publication attached to a major university. Do we need to expand private and public funding for more similar ventures? Probably. But how do we regulate such an industry? CJR is in a sense for-profit as well since it is a part of a very expensive university that promises a certain kind of education and thought, and is beholden to the market to provide that.

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