Home > boffins, journalism, Politics > Neutral, balanced news turns your brain to mush – New survey shock

Neutral, balanced news turns your brain to mush – New survey shock

An intriguing new survey by an American university purports to show that neutral, “passive” reporting about hot political issues can leave readers bewildered about where the truth lies and more likely to doubt their own ability to ever determine it.

The study, by Ohio University communications assistant professor Raymond Pingree and published in the uni’s latest Journal of Communication, says newsroom cost-cutting, faster news cycles, and fear of ‘‘going out on a limb,’’ has led mainstream American journalism to become drastically more “passive” over the past few decades.

Raymond Pingree

Raymond Pingree

However, people are more likely to doubt their own ability to determine the truth in politics after reading an article that simply lists competing claims without offering any idea of which side is right, Pingree says.

“There are consequences to journalism that just reports what each side says with no fact checking.

“It makes readers feel like they can’t figure out what the truth is.  And I would speculate that this attitude may lead people to tune out politics entirely, or to be more accepting of dishonesty by politicians.”

While some disputes in politics involve subjective issues where there is no right or wrong answers, some involve factual issues that could be checked by reporters if they had the time and the desire, he says.

“Choosing among government policies is simply not like choosing among flavours of ice cream.  Policy questions quite frequently centre on facts, and political disputes can and often do hinge on these facts, not only on subjective matters.”

To test his hypothesis, Pingree took 538 college students and got them to read one of four fictional news items about a fictional healthcare bill being “debated” in the House of Representatives. In one debate, opponents of the Bill argue its cost will be far higher than the estimated $200 million and in the other, opponents claim the bill is redundant with Medicaid and will create unnecessary bureaucracy.

Two of the reports were written in traditional, neutral he said/she said style, restricting themselves to the facts about what was said and by whom, while the other two included further digging which revealed which side was actually correct.

The students were then asked  a variety of questions, including three that asked whether they felt they could, in general, find the truth in matters of politics.  For example, one question asked how much the participants agreed with the statement “If I wanted to, I could figure out the facts behind most political disputes.”

Results showed that people interested in the health care issue who read the passive article felt they were less able to find truth in politics, compared to those who read the article resolving who was right in the debate.

“We’re just beginning to explore this issue,” Pingree says.  “But it is noteworthy that just reading a single news story about a single topic can affect how people feel about their own ability to find truth in politics.”

He believes the study suggests readers want reporters to tell them when the facts support – or don’t support – one side or the other. And while he acknowledges that in today’s understaffed, overworked newsrooms reporters often don’t have time to fully check all the claims made in a political debate and that “many still do a good job of resolving factual disputes when they can”, it is clear that this happens less than it used to.

“As a result, there may be people out there who feel like there is no such thing as a political fact, or at least that they can’t figure out what it is.

“That may make it easier for people to just quit following politics at all, or to accept dishonesty in politicians.”

There are, of course, online resources which can help a journo quickly check specific “facts” being bandied about by politicos. In the UK, there’s Full Fact, (but which is, quite frankly, often worse than useless and – let’s face it– informationally subtractive when it comes to something like AGW, where the Full Fact writers are less full of facts and more full of the stuff which emerges from the rear end of Bos taurus), while the US has PolitiFact, of which similar applies.

“It is interesting that there are now institutions within journalism dedicated to resolving disputes,” Pingree says. “A few decades ago, that was seen as the role of all journalists.  Journalists didn’t see themselves as stenographers, but as judges, keeping the lawyers honest in the court of public opinion.  We don’t see that as much anymore.”

There’s a few points of caution that I think need to be borne in mind with this survey and Pingree’s conclusions from it. This is not to disparage its design: I am not a statistician, and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent, as the old Wittgenstein gag has it. Nor am I going to attempt to refute its conclusions, which strike me being broadly correct. However:

  • Note that this survey was strictly limited to two theoretical political debates. The “facts” that either supported or refuted the opposition’s claims were therefore readily to hand. In real life, it’s not always that easy. Useful sites such as Full Fact notwithstanding, it may not always be possible to check all the facts that are being thrown about, even if the time were available, a point Pingree acknowledges in his report:

According to many critics, the crucial test of journalism is when sources make contradictory factual claims; in these moments, passive journalists stop at reporting the opposing claims when they should … ‘‘adjudicate factual disputes.’’ This adjudication is not a radical or novel proposal foreign to reporters’ habits; it comes down to the extent to which they ‘‘do their homework’’ by checking facts, looking for additional sources, and doing their own analysis. There is no limit to the amount of such homework that can be done on any given story, and there is no guarantee that it will resolve important factual disputes between sources. Ideally, journalists would decide how much adjudication a dispute merits based on a careful and open-minded assessment of its importance and resolvability.

  • Despite the study’s confidence in its statistical device of the epistemic political efficacy, which “taps confidence in one’s own ability to determine truth in politics”, the results still rely on the subjects’ self-assessment when rating their responses after reading the articles. This included rating their own responses to statements such as “I feel confident that I can find the truth about political issues”, “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does”, and “I consider myself well qualified to participate in politics.” It’s in the nature of this sort of study beast that it has to rely on this sort of self-assessment (without it, there wouldn’t be a study), but it raises all sorts of questions regarding possible bias, which brings me to the third point…
  • I wish Pingree had chosen a subject other than medical care. You don’t have to have been particularly attentive to US news sites to know that medical care has been the hot topic in American politics for more than two years now, and surely there can’t be an American of any kind of political stripe who wouldn’t have an opinion on it, either for or against and ranging from fiercely intense to mildly lukewarm. Indeed, it would be harder to come up with a more politically hot potato than medical care, except, perhaps, global warming. Pingree acknowledges this was a problem in the pilot survey, but claims he has adjusted for this “preconditioning” so it doesn’t skew his figures in the full study. It might have been better if he had simply chosen a more neutral topic and cut out the adjusting altogether.
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