Are Journalists The Best Fact Checkers?

Fake news is undoubtedly a huge topic at the moment, with a crisis of trust across much of the western world in the quality and reliability of information people receive.  It was a topic of a recent talk I gave at the House of Lords, and it was my contention that it is the responsibility of all stakeholders in this issue to improve matters rather than one group in isolation.

So it’s interesting to see a recent paper from the EU’s DEBUNKER project, which aims to improve the quality of information given to citizens via the media.  The paper puts forth the interesting theory that journalists themselves would make the best referees.

Debunking fake news

The project focuses exclusively on understanding the factors that give rise to misconceptions and false beliefs.  Their latest paper argues that journalists could play a key role and advocates them being more assertive in adjudicating arguments, fact checking the information and highlighting any untruths that they find.

The authors conducted an experiment featuring a relatively neutral topic, which was given to participants to read.  The topic was covered from two rival viewpoints, with a fact-checking paragraph whereby the journalist covered the accuracy of the contrasting perspectives.

The researchers initially worried that the presence of the fact-checking paragraph would only encourage party supporters to become more wedded to fake statements from their preferred political representatives rather than seeking out balance.  Indeed, past studies have found that corrective actions can make misconceptions even more deeply embedded.  In this experiment however, that didn’t appear to be the case, and the balanced story gained the journalist renewed trust, and certainly more so than politicians, including those from their party of choice.

Going the extra mile

The authors believe that journalists usually don’t include that kind of fact-checking analysis because they worry about being accused of bias.  Whilst the study found no evidence of this among readers in the experiment, they failed to analyze the time constraints placed on journalists in a media industry that is increasingly requiring news to be published quickly and frequently in order to get the page views that the industry lives off of.

With few readers willing to pay subscription fees, it’s a model that seems here to stay, and it’s therefore difficult to imagine the kind of due diligence participants in this study so valued from their journalists being done, if only due to the time pressures of the job.

Hopefully the finding will go some way to informing the debate however, and if nothing else give the industry the confidence to call out fake news when they see it, although the authors do concede that their work only touched upon relatively neutral issues and nothing remotely polarized and controversial.