Are Journalists in the Misinformation Business?

Can Journalists Survive the Internet Age?

Do mainstream journalists – trained to present both sides of an issue they’re reporting – contribute to the public’s interest in and acceptance of information that’s known to be wrong?

An new study presented at the 61st Annual International Communications Association Conference, analyzed how the mainstream media reported on Sara Palin’s 2009 Facebook post, which read:

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide…whether they are worthy of health care.”

Despite the fact that both PolitiFact, an arm of the St. Petersburg Times, and FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenburg Public Policy Center, both immediately debunked the veracity of Palin’s death panel claim…in the month following her Facebook post, the top 50 newspapers in the country published more than 700 articles about the claim, while the nightly network news ran about 20 stories on the topic.

In that mainstream media coverage:

  • More than 60% abstained from calling the death panels claim false.
  • Of the 40% who debunked Palin’s claim, nearly 75% of those articles contained no clarification as to why they were labeling the claim as false.
  • In 30% of cases where journalists reported that the claim was false, they included either side’s arguments as to why their side was right.

What was the impact of the lack of clarity generated by this journalistic “procedural objectivity”?

  • One poll released nearly two months after the Palin posting showed that 30% of the American public believed that proposed health care legislation would “create death panels.”
  • Three months following the posting, the number of people who believed in the death panel misinformation rose to 41%.

According to the study, the dilemma for reporters playing by the rules of procedural objectivity is that repeating a claim reinforces a sense of its validity — or at least, ensures it as an important topic of public debate.

The larger question raised by the study is whether traditional journalism can survive the internet age. According to the authors, the new focus of journalists should be substantive objectivity: to verify all information on which they report, and to not give a platform to facts known to be false or to unfounded accusations.  This is a major sea change for old school journalists, or at least for those who have survived.

The authors warn: “If we don’t see a greater degree of this substantive objectivity, the public is left largely at the mercy of the savviest online communicator. Indeed, if journalists refuse to critically curate new media, they are leaving both the public and themselves in a worse off position.”

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