“Death Panels” Report Reaches Depressing Conclusions

The media is ineffective at dispelling false rumors

Harold Camping was wrong about the rapture happening this past weekend, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever admit to being wrong in the way most of us know he is. The same goes for hardcore birthers, the people who believed “death panels” were part of healthcare legislation, and those convinced that vaccines cause autism.

All are wrong, and demonstrably so. But to simply dismiss them as misguided, gullible, or ignorant is to expose our ignorance of ourselves.

Their refusal to bend to facts and reality is an innately human trait. Within all of us exists the capacity—the propensity—to reject facts that contradict closely held views and beliefs. Once a human being is convinced of something, it’s incredibly difficult to get him to change his mind.

This is a significant challenge for the press. If you believe, as most journalists do, that we play an essential role in providing quality information to society, then knocking down rumors and combating misinformation is part of our mission and daily work. Thus the rise of fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, and the increased attempts by news organizations to fact-check statements and claims made by politicians and public figures.

This is important work that helps inform and educate. Or at least it has always seemed that way to me.

I’m suddenly feeling rather powerless and conflicted because, over the last few weeks, I’ve been familiarizing myself with a growing body of evidence that suggests the mainstream press is ineffective at combating misinformation and debunking falsehoods, and in many cases can reinforce and help spread misinformation.

Mother Jones recently published a fascinating article that provides a comprehensive survey of the science behind why people reject facts, why belief trumps evidence. It opens by quoting respected Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

The story reported that:

… an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. … It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The latest and perhaps most relevant piece of research is “Debunking Sarah Palin: Mainstream News Coverage of ‘Death Panels’,” a paper being presented at the annual conference of the International Communication Association, taking place right now in Boston.

Louisiana State University researchers Regina G. Lawrence and Matthew L. Schafer gathered a sample of close to 800 newspaper articles and transcripts from network news broadcasts that dealt with Sarah Palin’s false 2009 claim about “death panels.” (CJR’s Joel Meares has an extensive interview with Lawrence here.)

“After looking at [our findings], I really just don’t think that mainstream media can correct misconceptions that people hold on to tightly,” Schafer told me. “… Even when people are presented with factual information that goes against what they believe, the normal supposition would be that it would weaken their grasp of their reality—but they actually hold on tighter.”

Their research saw them analyze reporting to see how newspapers and TV dealt with the fake concept of death panels. They found that:

… in 39% of news stories, the reporter labeled the claim ‘false’ or used some cognate description. In almost two-thirds of news stories, reporters abstained from using any evaluative term assessing the truthfulness of the ‘death panels’ claim. Meanwhile, the editorial pages tilted against the ‘death panels’ claim, with 58% of editorialists and letter writers calling the claim false and less than 2% defending it.

So less than half of the news reports flatly stated that death panels were a fake invention of Palin’s. The authors view this as a high number. In an article about their research findings, they write that the percentage of articles that call death panels false is “surprising considering many journalists’ own conceptions that they act as neutral arbiters.”

That orientation—which comes from the notion of objectivity—also helps explain a rather strange approach taken by some journalists who dared to declare death panels false. The researches found that “in 30% of cases where journalists reported in their own words that the claim was false, they nonetheless included either side’s arguments as to why their side was right. This often just confuses the reader.”

Not a very good approach to debunking, is it? The researchers also found that in 72 percent of stories “the reporter labeled the claim false but did so without offering clarification from the legislative language.”

They declared death panels false but didn’t explain why. No context, no proof. And other journalists called them false only to quote sources saying they were true, or close to true. Again, probably not the best way to shoot down misinformation, especially when you know that decades of research tells us that it’s very difficult to change someone’s point of view on a controversial issue like this.

Then there’s the fact that close to 60 percent of the stories examined offered no debunking whatsoever. Many of these reports treated talk about death panels like a legitimate debate in the public sphere.

It seems that a good number of reporters are either unsure or conflicted about how to include a basic element of fact checking or debunking in their work. (Or their bosses are.) Is it really necessary to bring in the “other side” when all they’re doing is propagating a falsehood? It seems some newsrooms think so.

All of this helps explain why public opinion about the truth of death panels did not change during the weeks of coverage evaluated by the researchers. It remained steady, according to Schafer.

“Our data indicate that the mainstream news, particularly newspapers, debunked ‘death panels’ early, fairly often, and in a variety of ways, though some were more direct than others,” he and his co-author write in their paper. “Nevertheless, a significant portion of the public accepted the claim as truth …”

The researches found that as time wore on, fewer news stories treated the death panels as an issue of debate. The he said/she said stories began to disappear.

“By our strict measure, 48% of news stories during the first week after Palin’s Facebook post treated the claim in he said/she said fashion, reporting sources who both decried and promoted it,” they write. “By the second week, only 22% did so, by the third week, 17%, and from the fourth through the sixth week, only 7 to 9% of stories did so.”

Yet public opinion stayed relatively constant over those same weeks. The mainstream, influential American press couldn’t move the meter.

”Rumor Bomb”

One reason for the inability to change public opinion of course relates to the human bias towards not changing our closely held views. (When the apocalypse didn’t come, Harold Camping declared he’d miscalculated and it’s actually due this October…) Another reason is that journalists seem neither willing, nor particularly good at, debunking misinformation.

There’s a third reason, which is summarized nicely in this section of the research paper:

But another way of looking at the “death panels” controversy is to demonstrate that the mainstream media themselves bore some responsibility for the claim’s persistence. The “death panels” claim resembles what one author has called a “rumor bomb”: a strategic catchphrase intentionally designed to undermine serious public deliberation by playing on public uncertainty or fear (Harsin, 2008). Because such claims are not defined with any degree of specificity, he argues, the ability to rebut the rumor with facts is hampered. Such rumors present a “crisis of verification” in which “the reporter is unable to verify the claim through…other reliable sources, in accordance with professional rules of reporting and codes of ethics,” yet because such rumors make for interesting news and are easily spread through new media outlets, they are disseminated anyway—thus accomplishing their goal (2008, p. 165).

Death panels was a catchy meme, and Palin delivered it without specifying which part of the legislation she was referring to.

“It’s easier to correct what we call a ‘verifiable fact,’” Schafer said, “but if you play with something more ambiguous like death panels it’s just a great way for skilled political communicators to take a position that can’t necessarily be refuted because it has no definition.”

These factors played a role in overriding the attempts to debunk death panels. The more you wrote about how death panels were false or misleading, the more people kept hearing about, picturing, and thinking about death panels. It unleashed a vicious cycle.

Media reports, regardless of their content, can sometimes work to reinforce a falsehood.

We in the press, the people who are supposed to apply verification and be rigorous with what we publish and broadcast, can actually work against the process of correcting and informing people. We amplify falsehoods even as we work to combat them.

One prescription for handling this kind of situation is, as one researcher quoted in the paper said, to “create negative publicity for the elites who are promoting misinformation, increasing the costs for making false claims in the public sphere.”

Meaning: ignore people like Palin when they talk about death panels. But of course ignoring something because it is false is making a judgement, which some journalists seem loathe to do. If the mainstream press did choose to ignore stories like this, it would just enable supporters to claim it’s something the “media elites” don’t want people to know about.

Schafer raised another problem with this advice.

“There is a practical question of: What political journalist in August of 2009 isn’t going to cover the death panel claim just because they already debunked it?” he said. “It’s tough to say to a journalist, ‘If you’re really trying to serve the public best, then don’t cover this anymore.’ It’s like telling them to sit out the big game.”

Taken together, all of these factors have led me to end up in a rather conflicted and frustrated situation. The challenges are clear and well documented.

The solutions, however, are not.

Correction of the Week

“An article on Thursday about technology investments by the actor Ashton Kutcher misspelled in some copies the name of a fashion Web site in his portfolio. It is Fashism, not Fascisms.” - The New York Times

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , , ,