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

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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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5 comments
Puller58
Puller58 topcommenter

Politicians lie.  How else can they get elected, stay elected, and raise money?

UH-OH
UH-OH

The Associated Propagandists are 100% neutral. True story!

Chandler
Chandler

@UH-OH  

The AP and other wire services typically go along with whatever administration is spinning its line: see for example the WMD scare from W

UH-OH
UH-OH

@Chandler

The AP and other wire services typically go along with whatever leftist administration is spinning its line: see for example the King O & Obamacare, Benghazi, Fast & Furious, NSA spying, etc etc etc


FIFY

I_Bite
I_Bite

@Chandler Oh, those pesky WMDs


"We begin with the common belief that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a threat to the peace and stability of the region. He has ignored the mandate of the United Nations and is building weapons of mass destruction and th! e means of delivering them."
-- Sen. Carl Levin (D, MI), Sept. 19, 2002

"We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country."
-- Al Gore, Sept. 23, 2002

"Iraq's search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to deter and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power."
-- Al Gore, Sept. 23, 2002

"We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction."
-- Sen. Ted Kennedy (D, MA), Sept. 27, 2002

"The last UN weapons inspectors left Iraq in October of 1998. We are confident that Saddam Hussein retains some stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and that he has since embarked on a crash course to build up his chemical and biological warfare capabilities. Intelligence reports indicate that he is seeking nuclear weapons..."
-- Sen. Robert Byrd (D, WV), Oct. 3, 2002

"I will be voting to give the President of the United States the authority to use force -- if necessary -- to disarm Saddam Hussein because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security."
-- Sen. John F. Kerry (D, MA), Oct. 9, 2002

"There is unmistakable evidence that Saddam Hussein is working aggressively to develop nuclear weapons and will likely have nuclear weapons within the next five years ... We also should remember we have always underestimated the progress Saddam has made in development of weapons of mass destruction."
-- Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D, WV), Oct 10, 2002

"He has systematically violated, over the course of the past 11 years, every significant UN resolution that has demanded that he disarm and destroy his chemical and biological weapons, and any nuclear capacity. This he has refused to do"
-- Rep. Henry Waxman (D, CA), Oct. 10, 2002

"In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members ... It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons."
-- Sen. Hillary Clinton (D, NY), Oct 10, 2002

"We are in possession of what I think to be compelling evidence that Saddam Hussein has, and has had for a number of years, a developing capacity for the production and storage of weapons of mass destruction."
-- Sen. Bob Graham (D, FL), Dec. 8, 2002

"Without question, we need to disarm Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal, murderous dictator, leading an oppressive regime ... He presents a particularly grievous threat because he is so consistently prone to miscalculation ... And now he is miscalculating America's response to his continued deceit and his consistent grasp for weapons of mass destruction ... So the threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real..."
-- Sen. John F. Kerry (D, MA), Jan. 23. 2003

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