How Journalists Can Communicate Truth Effectively and Credibly

Caption: Image of various types of news media (Wikimedia Commons)

As a journalist, you are committed to seeking and reporting the truth, following the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Unfortunately, recent behavioral science research shows that some standard practices of how journalists communicate the news both fail to convey the actual facts and fail to create an impression of credibility among audiences.

Consider a typical journalistic trope: the 10 myths, followed by a rebuttal of these myth. A classical example is this Time article on 10 science myths, or the weekly “5 myths” column in The Washington Post. In our era of fake news and alternative facts, many journalists use this style to counter such misinformation.

However, much research, such as a 2005 study in the Journal of Consumer Research or a 2016 study in Science Communication show that this style of writing usually backfires. The studies demonstrate that when journalists present a myth first, followed by corrective factual information, news consumers will tend to remember the myth as opposed to the correction. This backfire effect becomes stronger over time, with more study participants forgetting the corrective information and instead remembering the myth as true.

The backfire effect is one of over a hundred mental failures that behavioral scientists call cognitive biases. Behavioral science researchers believe there might be several reasons for the backfire effect.

First, the backfire effect ties in with another cognitive bias called the illusory truth effect, our tendency to ascribe more credibility to a statement the more often we hear it, regardless of whether the statement is true. We know from recent research that misinformation spreads faster and further than true information, so news consumers are likely to hear fake news more often than corrections. Thus, they are more likely to encounter misinformation before the correction, and encounter it more often: as a result, they would tend to believe the myth than the correction.

Second, the way we form our memories exacerbates the backfire effect. We have much stronger memories about what we perceive as salient information, as opposed to the context around that information. If the myth is presented by a journalist as salient information, then we tend to remember the myth, and forget the contextual information of the correction of the myth. Consider the Time article as a classic example: each myth is presented as a bolded statement, with our attention drawn to it, while the corrective is presented as commentary about it. No wonder that the backfire effect intensifies over time, with people remembering the key information – the myth – as opposed to the corrective information.

The typical style of writing headlines exacerbates the challenges of communicating truth to news consumers. We know that people get most of their news from skimming the headlines; in fact, most people share articles based on the headline alone. Unfortunately, most headlines concerned with misinformation convey the actual misinformation in the title, leading people to have the wrong impression.

Consider this BBC article, entitled “£350m Brexit claim was ‘too low’, says Boris Johnson.” You probably know that the original claim of £350m for the UK National Health Service if the UK leaves the EU is false, and may well suspect that this one is false too. However, you as a journalist are a sophisticated news consumer, and most people are not.

Knowing that most people will only read the headline, and share it on social media afterward, what do you think readers will take away from the headline? They will take away the impression that Brexit was even better than they thought. Now, the rest of the readers who choose to delve more deeply into the piece will learn that critics strongly pushed back against Boris Johnson’s false claim. Still, plenty of those who read this piece – and similar pieces like this one from Reuters – will fail to remember the pushback, and only retain the myth.

Fortunately, adjusting the style of reporting addresses this problem. The BBC and Reuters pieces could have had a headline such as “Critics bash Boris Johnson’s claims about post-Brexit savings.” Instead of starting the piece with Johnson’s claim, the article can start with criticism of these claims. Another approach might be to use the headline “Boris Johnson doubles down on previously-disproved Brexit claims.” Then, you can start your story with the disproved claims about £350m, and get to new claims by Johnson, and then criticism of these claims. This change in the traditional journalistic approach to conveying information is aligned with how our brain intakes information and addresses many cognitive biases, which are described in more details here.

Besides communicating truth effectively, journalists need to convey credibility. Yet, trust in the media has been decreasing, including in media fact-checking, around the globe. So how do you communicate credibility to news consumers?

Consider their perspective. You might alway abide by the SPJ code, but how do news consumers know that? The Pro-Truth Pledge (PTP), a civic initiative to fight misinformation and incivility, provides a way to do so. The pledge asks signers – which includes private citizens, public figures, and organizations – to commit to 12 behaviors that research in behavioral science shows correlate with an orientation toward truthfulness, which align well with the SPJ code.

The pledge provides external credibility by permitting anyone to file complaints about any false statements made by a public figure, and PTP volunteers evaluate these statements to ensure accountability. Thus, the PTP functions as the equivalent of the Better Business Bureau for public figures: the BBB provides credibility for ethical business practices and the PTP provides credibility for truthfulness for public figures and organizations.

After signing the pledge, individual journalists can include the pledge logo it on their website, in their personal bio on articles, and on their social media profiles. Media venues that take the pledge as an organization can list it on their website and in print. Likewise, their information is listed on the PTP public figures and organizations page, and shared with all private citizens who signed the pledge, who are then substantially more likely to follow journalists and media venues who committed to the PTP. Through both publicly signaling your commitment to the truth and through opening yourself up to being held accountable, you as a journalist – and any media organizations to which you belong – convey credibility to their audiences.

Behavioral science research can help you as a journalist to communicate truth both more effectively and credibly. Please take advantage of them!

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