Myth-Busting Mistake

(CBS/The Early Show)
Down with fact checkers!

Well no, not really. But still … sort of. Fact checking in the media may be doing more harm than good, it turns out.

A lot is made by this writer and other media types who presume to take the side of Truth and Light and, ahem, "Set the Record Straight" and fact check when it comes to misperceptions in the media. We're the irritating (but well-meaning) souls who spout out lines like "… but it turns out shark attacks aren't up but down in Florida this summer."

But it turns out we're a little off on that.

According to an interview from this past weekend's NPR "On the Media" it seems that every time a reporter takes the time to bring up something in order to correct it, the mere recitation of the original flawed fact only serves to reinforce it, even if your entire point was to debunk it. As the interview began:
Bob Garfield: Americans may or may not be as sleep-deprived as drug makers claim, but if it were a myth you could try to quash it with the truth. That's what the Centers for Disease Control Prevention recently did. They sent out a flyer listing various facts and myths about the flu vaccine and labeled them "true or false." But a study at the University of Michigan found that the CDC flyer actually did nothing to change people's minds and may have even spread vaccine myths to more people.

Shankar Vedantam, a reporter for The Washington Post, explains that right after reading the flyer, people mostly remembered the false statements as false.

Shankar Vedantam: But about 30 minutes later, older people started to remember some of the false statements as true, and three days later, very large numbers of older people and significant numbers of younger people also started remembering increasing numbers of myths as true.

The true statements did not suffer the same kind of deterioration with time. In other words, over time we tend to remember false things as true but not true things as false.
How, then, are journalists supposed to clear the air when there are things in the conventional wisdom that need to be tweaked or outright corrected – particularly in a campaign year such clarifications will be sorely needed?

According to Vedantam, it's simple but tricky. "When you're trying to deny a falsehood," he told Garfield in the interview, "perhaps the most effective way of doing that is by not mentioning the original falsehood at all."

So what's the takeaway for fact-checking journalists? Gather readers or viewers attention by elliptically letting them know they're wrong and then setting them straight – like "Despite widely circulated claims to the contrary …" and then include the salient information.

Otherwise, you're not part of the solution – you're just perpetuating the problem.
  • Matthew Felling

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