Debunking Gets It's Fifteen Minutes in the Media

Debunking got some media attention this past week! Hurray! NPR's Bob Garfield hosted an On The Media chat with Craig Silberman, a fellow at Columbia's Tow Center for Journalism and bestill my heart, founder of Emergent, a rumor tracking/news debunking website. The topic: Uncorrected Rumors. My ears perk up and my spirits rise when I hear talk of "unverified claims" and "misinformation" and on my birthday too, a perfect gift.

Silverman, the debunker-in-chief pins a lot of blame on the media. He told Garfield "when it comes to misinformation, in many ways news organizations are part of the problem rather than the solution." In fact he makes an even stronger case for the media botching it from the get-go in a report he compiled for the Tow Center:
News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors. Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement. Lies, Damned Lies and Viral Content 

Readers here know the many ways the media perpetuate error and innuendo. One of the most common missteps that fortunately Silverman addresses includes failing to following up on rumors or stories that turn out to be false. In journalistic lingo, the media fails to follow through on verification. After the news media linked a mass grave in Mexico to students that had been killed, only about third of the outlets bothered reporting weeks later there was no correction according to Silverman. I'd argue that there is very little verification when it comes to children's health news. Other than the debunked link between autism and vaccines, when is the last time you recall reading an article correcting any factoids or inaccurate coverage of children's health let alone parenting advice?

Then there are the headlines. Silverman brings up several types that don't need much explanation here. Parents practically get hit over the head with the strong headlines. For example, ones like these:
  • The headline that makes a claim seem truer or stronger than it is. Watching TV Makes Kids Violent. (Notice the casual language.)
  • The headline with the question mark, also making claim appear stronger. TV Encourages Aggressive Behavior? (these are all my examples here, duh!)
Either through casual language or the strategic question mark, the headlines regularly introduce more certainty that than the scientific evidence suggests. I'd also argue headlines also up the ante and drama with absolute ratios. Daily TV Linked to Five-Fold Increase in Violence. Not Breastfeeding Doubles Risk of Obesity. 

Contrast this with the striking scenario I noticed on reporting of the new peanut allergy research, yes that landmark, game-changing study - the media chose that remarkable moment to insert some uncertainty, some hesitation into the headlines. CNN: Early Consumption May Prevent Peanut Allergies, NPR: Feeding Babies With Foods With Peanuts Appears To Prevent Allergies, NY Times: Feeding Infants Peanut Products Could Prevent Allergies. Seriously, I cannot make this stuff up. Who knew the media would chose that moment to hedge their bets? Headlines misinform or distort in some pretty subtle ways. Another tactic, Breastfed Kids Smarter! So here a correlational result (a correlation between breastfeeding and intelligence) gets translated into headline that I'd bet most people interpret as breastfeeding makes kids smarter. The seed is planted, firmly, especially when the nuance gets buried in the final paragraph or by the lead researcher telling us how surprised she was to find such a big difference between breastfed and formula-fed kids.  I designed the study but wow, I was so surprised by the results!

We at Momma Data also know too well that readers tend to believe the claim in the headline as Silver pointed out. People still tend to believe the headlines, even if after reading the article that raises some uncertainty. After a claim gets planted in the head, it's hard to dislodge. Especially with repetition. Social psychologists have worried for decades about how false information sticks like super glue.

As much as it pains me, sigh, even debunking carries risks. As Silverman and Garfield both lamented, reading or hearing false or inaccurate information over and over, even if in a debunking context, lends it some credibility. Debunking doesn't appear to change the minds of people with extreme or strongly held views, in fact it can backfire strengthening opinions and beliefs. The autism-vaccine-measles debacle very well may become the textbook phenomenon for understanding the role of the media in perpetuating and correcting misinformation and also in the realms of public and psychology, how people respond to misinformation and its correction. Researchers already have published studies but the results are not encouraging as I've reported. There have been no singular, clear solutions for how to address or change people's incorrect beliefs, especially about vaccinations, although there are some hints. Silverman in a report for the Tow Center shows some reporting tactics for correcting misinformation and argues, amen, an important step involves journalists using more skeptical thought before reporting questionable information.

Read Silverman's Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content paper here.
Listen to the On The Media podcast here.

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