Nyhan publishes study on media fact-checking

Government professor Brendan Nyhan co-authored a study about the influence of media on political misperceptions.

A study co-authored by government professor Brendan Nyhan explores whether aggressive media fact-checking can correct misperceptions about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and other health care reforms. The study, published in the February issue of the journal Medical Care, stresses the difficulty of reducing misperceptions among politically knowledgeable people when these correspond with their political beliefs.

Participants in the study were assigned to one of two groups. The first group, which acted as a control, read an article about former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s inaccurate claims that the Affordable Care Act would lead to the creation of “death panels” and deny health care to elderly and disabled Americans. The second group read the same article that had an appended correction refuting Palin’s claims. A political knowledge scale was used to quantify participants’ political awareness prior to the study.

Those who viewed Palin unfavorably and those who viewed her favorably but had a low level of political knowledge were more likely to be convinced by the correction, according to the study. However, participants who had a favorable view of Palin and a high level of political knowledge were not convinced by the correction.

“Telling people that there were no death panels backfired among a subset of respondents who had the political inclination and the knowledge necessary to reject that information,” Nyhan said.

The study emphasized that Palin supporters who were politically knowledgeable were more likely to support death panels and oppose health care reform if they read the correction.

“In some cases, correcting people may lead them to hold on to their misperceptions even more strongly,” study co-author and Georgia State University political science professor Jason Reifler said.

The study’s results indicate that misperceptions about health care reform are difficult to dispel, as people are likely to accept unsupported claims if they are consistent with their partisan or ideological views, even when they are presented with evidence to the contrary.

Nyhan asserts that political knowledge helps people argue against claims they do not want to believe.

“Those who were more knowledgeable were more likely to reject the correction,” Nyhan said. “Knowing more doesn’t always make you better informed.”

The study drew 948 participants from an Internet opt-in panel. Reifler said the study sample is “generalizable” to the American population because individuals were randomly assigned to one of the two groups.

“One half got the correction, the other half didn’t, allowing us to make valid causal inferences,” Reifler said.

The study’s authors also instituted demographic controls for age, gender and race. They found that being a senior citizen, male or African-American did not affect an individual’s response as much as one’s political affiliation and knowledge.

The study’s results may have broader implications for media sources that conduct more aggressive fact-checking.

“One of the challenges of fact-checking is the risk of antagonizing half of your audience,” Nyhan said. “Whether you’re criticizing Democrats or Republicans, someone’s going to be unhappy. Unfortunately, it has not just journalistic but commercial implications.”

Nyhan and Reifler were motivated to conduct the study along with Duke University professor Peter Ubel after researching how corrections can fail to reduce political misperceptions.

Nyhan and Reifler are currently working on a variety of projects, including a study on the phenomenon of belief perseverance that will explore how discredited information can have a lingering effect on a person’s opinions.

Nyhan is the co-author of the 2004 book “All the President’s Spin,” which examined how prominent politicians manipulated media agencies to promote their personal agendas.

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