Our brains resist correction, but there are ways to break through

March 1, 2012
Category: Uncategorized

It’s taken a couple of months, but the New America Foundation is in the process of releasing interesting and useful research papers created for a December fact-checking event hosted by the organization.

I wrote about that gathering, and one that preceded it at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in November. But there was a lot I couldn’t share from the December event, because it was held under Chatham House Rule, and the papers prepared for the gathering were not yet public. Now at least two of those papers are available for free.

Earlier this week, I linked to a fascinating paper that lays out the origins and current state of political fact checking. Now the paper I was most looking forward to has been released [PDF]. Best of all, Columbia Journalism Review adapted it into an article, “Countering Misinformation: Tips for Journalists.”

The paper is the work of two researchers, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. (Nyhan is also writing about the 2012 campaign for CJR.) They have been doing important work to help explain why people are susceptible to misinformation, and why it’s hard to convince us to change our minds once we’ve taken hold of a view. I dedicated two previous columns to research in this area.

The duo have also, critically, spent time and effort to try and learn the best ways to  combat and correct misinformation. The paper, and the CJR article, distill their work into nine tips for journalists.

You need to read the CJR article, if not the entire PDF. These are good, actionable tips. The first three items on the list relate directly to how you offer effective corrections to misinformation:

1. Get the story right the first time. Once an error is communicated and stored in people’s memories, it is difficult to undo. Even when people are exposed to a correction and acknowledge that the initial claim was false, the errant information may continue to influence their attitudes. In addition, people may misremember the false claim as true over time.

An obvious point, but please understand that this comes from the perspective of two researchers. They have data to back up the fact that it’s hard to convince people to change their minds. It’s hard to replace incorrect information with correct information inside our minds. Our brains, to a certain extent, resist correction. An important point.

2. Early corrections are better. News organizations should strive to correct their errors as quickly as possible and to notify the media outlets that disseminated them further. It is difficult to undo the damage from an initial error, but rapid corrections of online articles or video can ensure that future readers and other journalists are not misled.

This is an important reminder that we have a duty to promote corrections. If the story has been shared on social media and in other places, you need to spread the correction to those places — and fast. Contact people who retweeted the incorrect information and make sure they know you made a fix. Remember that the longer you wait, the more the incorrect information becomes entrenched in mediums and minds.

3. Beware making the problem worse. While prompt corrections are valuable, it’s important to recognize the risk that corrections can increase the prevalence of misperceptions. First, news reports seeking to correct a misperception may expose more people to false information and thereby increase belief in the myth rather than reduce it. Corrections may also increase the prevalence of a misperception if people who hold it are provoked to defend their prior beliefs. Finally, even if people initially accept that a given claim is false, they may suffer from an “illusion of truth” over time and come to believe that the claim is accurate. A careful balance must be struck between the desire to correct misperceptions and the risks of popularizing them further.

My takeaway: It matters how your correction is expressed. Emphasize the correct information, while also acknowledging your error. Put the focus on being clear about what’s right.

However, do not gloss over the error. A lack of transparency makes a correction less convincing. Be clear, be honest, and be focused on making sure anyone reading/viewing/hearing the information is getting the correct information. For written content, that means you need to fix the error in the copy and add a correction. Those two always go together.

Be sure to go read the six other suggestions.