Journalists can help their readers form accurate views by "adjudicating" between opposing political claims in their articles, a new study shows.
Refereeing political disputes by clearly highlighting which facts are accurate can help to give the public a more coherent version of current events. This "assertive" reporting could help to reduce misperceptions among the public as they attend to coverage of political disputes in the media.
An experiment run by Dr Benjamin Lyons from the University of Exeter shows that journalists can do more to signal to readers which information should be treated most seriously because it is true. This research shows this does not lead to readers treating the journalist as biased for favouring one version of events, the research shows.
Fact-checking organisations have become influential in recent years with people keen to check the accuracy of what they are told by public figures, and some news outlets have their own fact-checking sections. But people can use these services selectively, and they might not have access to fact checking for every news story they encounter. By adjudicating disputes within standard news stories, journalists can reach readers in a natural setting, and could reduce chances that misperceptions take hold and later require debunking.
Dr Lyons' study showed that journalists can provide one-sided evidence - information from experts supporting a particular view - that has a bigger impact over people's factual beliefs than their partisan or ideological attachments.
Dr Lyons said: "American journalists are often criticised for the passive way they report disputes in politics. He said-she said stories are common because they are easier to produce and the norm of objectivity often pushes journalists toward false balance. Previous research has found some readers dislike formats that are not strictly neutral. At the same time, though, critics call for more forceful weight-of-evidence reporting.
"I wanted to test scenarios in which journalists could successfully influence readers' beliefs even if their conclusions favoured the opposing political party. The danger is that adjudication may backfire - reinforcing people's belief in the claims forwarded by their party, even if they are told they are wrong.
"The study found readers believed the journalist over their party, and one-sided adjudication did not increase perceived bias. Readers also reported greater satisfaction of their informational needs. But of course there are some issues in the news where it will be more difficult to adjudicate. I think the more specific the issue, location or event in question, the more influential adjudication would be. Journalists may find targeting narrow claims a fruitful approach to inject a small amount of factual understanding into even contentious debates."
A total of 523 American participants were recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform to take part in the study. People were asked to read an article that covered a dispute between state legislators over the economic cost-benefit of a proposed nuclear power project. This issue was chosen because most Americans hold weak opinions about nuclear power, and sizeable proportions of both major parties support its use. In the article, opponents of the project claimed the project carried a high risk of default and would hurt taxpayers, while proponents voiced counter-claims. The political party supporting or opposing the proposal was altered during the experiment. Half of the participants saw a section that vetted these claims, using quotes from expert sources to support one side or the other in the dispute.
Dr Lyons said: "This study should give journalists encouragement as they think about how to present facts in the current climate. It adds to growing body of work that shows fact checking can be successful, particularly when targeting claims less central to individuals' identity. This suggests they can take a more assertive approach to adjudicating the facts."
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The study "When Readers Believe Journalists: Effects of Adjudication in Varied Dispute Contexts" is published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research.