Monday, October 6, 2008

Political Science Experiments Show Media Corrections Could Backfire

With less than a month to go before the November election, voters are weighing the information they’ve received about the candidates in preparation for the voting booth. But what happens when the information they’ve been given is wrong?

Jason Reifler, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State, set out to examine the effects of political misinformation and attempts to correct that information on the public. They gave news articles that contained slightly misleading information to a group of volunteers. Half of that group then received corrections to the misleading information. The results were surprising.

“We started this research actually trying to figure out what strategies would best enable the media or other sources to be able to try and correct misperceptions that people hold,” Reifler said. “And what we found instead was that giving people a slightly misleading statement as part of a newspaper article and then giving some people corrections, that some people actually ended up believing the thing that was wrong even more fervently after being given the correction.”

Given their findings, Reifler and research partner Brendan Nyhan of Duke University will now shift their focus to examine why media corrections don’t work and what can be done to make corrections more effective. One possible explanation is that voters feel their sense of self is being threatened when they receive information that runs counter to their beliefs.

“We’re looking at interventions that increase people’s self-esteem or sense of self, and that if you reinforce those, are people therefore more open to counterattitudinal information?” Reifler said. “The long-term hope is that we’ll actually be able to give strategies to the media, to politicians, so that we’re able to have a better political debate.”

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