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When Politicians Lie, Here's How Journalists (and You) Should Correct Them

Whose Nose is Longer?
Whose Nose is Longer?

It is a commonplace that politicians will spin facts to their benefit. Indeed, politicians have been known to stretch the truth so far that it reaches into "that is simply false" territory. "Truthiness" it's called. And it is not limited solely to politicians.

Even more disconcerting is that social science research has shown that once an untruth or misinformation has been unleashed into the media-sphere it can be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.For example, if the lie is "Sally is a tax cheat," and the lie is only corrected with a negation, "Sally is not a tax cheat," people still have the tendency to put Sally and tax cheat in the same mental box. The negative association remains.

But thanks to some new research by political scientists we know have some clues for how journalists -- or if you're simply trying to convince your friend that he's mistaken -- should go about correcting political misperceptions, including some additional tips if your target audience is conservative or liberal.

The study utilized two partisan pieces of misinformation from the 2012 campaign: (1) that President Obama had raised taxes (not true); and (2) that Mitt Romney had "shipped jobs overseas" when he was the CEO at Bain Capital (also not true). When the tax untruth was presented to conservatives they only showed (statistically significant) levels of believing the correction -- Obama did not raise taxes -- when the source was either Fox News, a conservative think tank (American Enterprise Institute) or a non-partisan think thank (RAND Corporation).

However, if the corrective came from MSNBC or a liberal think-tank (Center for American Progress), conservatives were more likely to hold tight to the misinformation. This likely stems from the obvious: conservatives have been told, and have been telling themselves, of a liberal media bias since the 1970s. Even though it's not true (or at least very open to debate), it something that most conservatives believe. Interestingly, and conversely, liberals did not seem to care where the corrective came from. The corrective was no more persuasive if it came from MSNBC or Fox.

So, besides knowing your audience, what else do we know? Well, as noted above in the "tax cheat" example, a simple negation is not enough. People have a need for a new or different "causal alternative." That is, an equally compelling reason why x happened or is or is not true. If a different causal alternative is not presented, the fact-checker is likely spinning their wheels. Finally, it seems obvious, but the fact-corrector should "seek out experts who are speaking out against a misperception held their ideological or partisan allies."

Supply an expert opinion, offer a different causal alternative and know your audience -- you will be never lose another political debate.


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