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Misinformation and Fact-checking

Research Findings from Social Science
  • By Brendan Nyhan, Asst. Professor, Dartmouth College; Jason Reifler, Asst. Professor, Georgia State
February 28, 2012 |

Citizens and journalists are concerned about the prevalence of misinformation in contemporary politics, which may pollute democratic discourse and undermine citizens’ ability to cast informed votes and participate meaningfully in public debate. Academic research in this area paints a pessimistic picture—the most salient misperceptions are widely held, easily spread, and difficult to correct. Corrections can fail due to factors including motivated reasoning, limitations of memory and cognition, and identity factors such as race and ethnicity. Nonetheless, there is reason to be optimistic about the potential for effectively correcting misperceptions, particularly among people who are genuinely open to the facts. In this report, we offer a series of practical recommendations for journalists, civic educators, and others who hope to reduce misperceptions:

1. Get the story right the first time.

2. Early corrections are better.

3. Beware making the problem worse. to the fringe.

4. Avoid negations.

5. Minimize repetition of false claims.

6. Reduce partisan and ideological cues.

7. Use credible sources; don’t give credence

8. Use graphics where appropriate.

9. Beware selective exposure.

These recommendations consider several possible approaches journalists can take to protect citizens who are targeted with misinformation. First, they can try to push citizens out of the line of fire by, for instance, getting the story right the first time, refusing to give credence to fringe sources, and minimizing repetition of false claims. In this way, people are less likely to be taken in by misinformation. Second, reporters can try to repair the damage inflicted by false information by correcting it after the fact as quickly as possible, avoiding the use of negations in corrections, reducing partisan and ideological cues in stories intended to reduce misinformation, and using graphics when appropriate in correcting mistaken beliefs. Ideally, however, we would like to shield

Journalistic watchdogs can help to change elite incentives to promote misleading claims and can inform journalists who would otherwise disseminate those claims. In this way, fact-checking may help to increase the reputational costs of misinformation and limit its dissemination even when individual-level misperceptions are difficult to correct.