February 16, 2017

The simple but frustrating truth is that facts alone are not enough to provide context and clarity for your audience. Even the most thorough, accurate piece of reporting might still be trumped by a poorly reasoned and false counterargument.

Decades of research into the way humans process information and deal with misinformation and propaganda show that people are more inclined to believe things that are in line with their existing views — even if proven truth contradicts their beliefs.

Here are some factors that make it difficult to convince people of facts.

Selective Exposure: We tend to gravitate toward  — and even seek out — sources and information that fit with our existing views. Even with a multitude of sources available online, people do not actively seek out information that contradicts what they believe.

The Backfire Effect: People do not view contrary evidence with a sense of detachment. When we become invested in a point of view or a set of facts about the world or ourselves, contrary evidence causes us to double down on our beliefs. When challenged, we react. We don’t reason. This means that it matters how journalists present contradictory evidence. (For additional background, see The Backfire Effect, a column from the Columbia Journalism Review by Craig Silverman.)

Motivated Reasoning: We think we’re being rational about what we read, but we are ruled by emotion on things we care about. We tend to cherry-pick experts’ opinions and select statistics that back up our beliefs. This may seem like a totally conscious act, and it can be. But it can also occur on a subconscious level. We often don’t realize that we are naturally gravitating toward “facts” and other material that fits with what we already believe — practicing selective exposure.

Illusion of Truth: Familiar claims start to seem true over time. This explains why message saturation (or propaganda) can have such a powerful effect on people and why even seemingly ineffective ads or ridiculous claims can be potent. Recognizing this phenomenon means that, as journalists, we need to be cautious about how we choose to express false claims when attempting to debunk them.

Taken from Getting It Right: Accuracy and Verification in the Digital Age, a self-directed course by Craig Silverman at Poynter NewsU. You can also join our Poynter NewsU webinar with Silverman, Investigating the Internet: How to Sniff Out Scams.

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Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current…
Vicki Krueger

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