Monday, August 25, 2008

Stopping false beliefs - Four principles for journalists

In June, we wrote for the New York Times about how our brains lie to us, allowing the formation of false beliefs. Examples of false beliefs include rumors about Barack Obama's religion, or about John McCain fathering a mixed-race child. We didn't realize at the time just how relevant our topic would be in this year's mud-filled Presidential campaign.

Dan Froomkin asked us if brain science has any practical lessons for journalists in how to prevent false belief formation. The answer is yes. So we wrote an article for Nieman Watchdog. It says, among other things:
The human brain...does not save information permanently, as do computer drives and printed pages. Recent research suggests that every time the brain recalls a piece of information, it is "written" down again and often modified in the process. Along the way, the fact is gradually separated from its original context. For example, most people don't remember how they know that the capital of Massachusetts is Boston.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, leads people to forget over time where they heard a statement - and whether it is true. A statement that is initially not believed can gain credibility during the months that it takes to reprocess memories from short-term to longer-term storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications may gain strength.
And here's the corresponding lesson for journalists:
1. State the facts without reinforcing the falsehood. Repeating a false rumor can inadvertently make it stronger. In covering the controversy over a New Yorker cover caricaturing Barack and Michelle Obama, many journalists repeated the charges against the candidate - often citing polling data on how many Americans believe them - before noting that the beliefs were false. Particularly damaging is the common practice of replaying parts of an ad before debunking its content.
To find out what the other three lessons are, read the whole thing.

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