Warning: your journalism may contain deception, inaccuracies and a hidden agenda

Your media may not be giving you the full picture. DeeKnow/Flickr

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY – Stephan Lewandowsky and Ullrich Ecker have some tips on how avoid being fooled by the media.

Bad media can do considerable harm.

Professor Stephen Kull has been keeping track of key beliefs among the American public for many years, and his data are as stunning as they are concerning.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US began its search for the “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) it had used to justify the invasion. The search proved futile, but large segments of the US public continued to believe in their existence. Indeed, in 2004, some 20% believed that WMD’s had been used by Iraqi troops during the conflict.

And in 2010, almost 45% of the American public erroneously believed that scientists are evenly divided on whether or not climate change is occurring.

In fact, an overwhelming majority of scientists supports the consensus view, labelled a “settled fact” by the US National Academy, that the Earth is warming due to human activities.

Are all media bad all the time?

Do these data imply that the media in general misreports important issues?


Further inspection reveals that the extent of mistaken belief varies dramatically with people’s preferred news source. Consumers of Murdoch-owned Fox News were most likely to be misinformed on a range of issues, whereas those who primarily listened to National Public Radio (roughly comparable to our ABC) were most likely to be attuned to reality.

Moreover, the extent to which Fox consumers were misinformed increased with how much they were glued to their preferred channel. Those who entered the Fox “matrix” every day were least likely to be connected to reality. Those who watched Fox “rarely” or “only once a week” escaped nearly unscathed and resembled occasional listeners of public radio.

(In contrast, increased consumption of Public Radio increased people’s understanding of reality, and daily listeners were typically the best-informed people across a number of studies spanning nearly a decade.)

Getting your head above the spin

A functioning media is a crucial element of a functioning democracy.

But those in the media who cast aside accurate reporting in favour of ideological drivel and spin are dysfunctional and must themselves be held accountable.

But until bad media are held accountable by shining a bright light onto their practices, what can a member of the … public do to avoid being misinformed?

As we saw at the beginning of this piece, an obvious response is to choose one’s source of news wisely.

Another response, based on research in cognitive science, is to be highly sceptical of the media and to accept that some organs may be pursuing an agenda other than to objectively inform the public.

We know that people are more likely to discount information that later turns out to be false if they are warned ahead of time of the possibility that they are being misled. In an ideal world, warning labels on mendacious media products, akin to those on tobacco products, would be a solution: “We frequently mislead — disbelief of content is advisable.”

Know whom to trust

We also know from research that raising suspicion about the source of potential misinformation helps alleviate its effects. We found that people who were suspicious about the official reasons for the 2003 Iraq invasion — namely the search for weapons of mass destruction — were better at distinguishing between truthful news reports concerning war events on the one hand, and false and later-retracted reports of events on the other.

In a nutshell, people who believed the WMD story also continued to believe in other war-related information which they knew had been retracted. People who thought Iraq was invaded for reasons other than WMDs, appropriately disbelieved information they knew to be wrong.

Hence, general suspicion surrounding an event and its architects can help us discount information that turns out to be false. Without this suspicion, that information otherwise lingers in people’s memories.

Likewise, entertaining the possibility that some media organs are pursuing a propagandistic agenda may induce healthy suspicion about what those organs are likely to print or broadcast.

[This article has been abridged somewhat to delete references that are not applicable to American media; you can read the article in its entirety here.

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