Bigfoot in Russia?
Use your words

Rumours, misinformation and the debunking problem

Over the last several months, Craig Silverman, author of Poynter’s Regret the Error blog, has been tracking the way rumors and unverified claims spiral through the news. He founded the website Emergent not only to trace the rumors, but to track how the press deals with debunking them. Well, patterns are already emerging…and they will make you sad.

Some notes from an On The Media segment that I found fascinating…

‘Headline-body dissonance’ is when the reporting of the news in the body of an article doesn’t pair up with the headline summary, typically by making a seeming factual statement in the headline and then walking that back in the article using language like ‘allegedly’ and ‘reportedly’.

An ‘innuendo headline’ is one that makes claim or an accusation, but with a question mark on the end of it. Eg: ‘Bigfoot sighted in Russia?’ (See also: Betteridge’s law of headlines: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”)

These innuendo headlines are problematic as first readers have to understand the claim seemingly being made, so they naturally process it as true. Even after reaching the question mark in most cases readers lean towards the headline being true.

For news organisations the simple act of addressing rumours can give them an air of credibility, even when the intention is to correct the record.

“Theres a connection between repetition and belief.”

The very process of debunking a rumour can have the effect of cementing the misinformation in the minds of those that prefer the false narrative.

Silverman: “This is called the ‘backfire effect’. When deeply held views are challenged our instinct is not to say ‘oh, let me understand your point of view on this’ it’s to double down on those beliefs and to reject what’s being told to us, and this is one of the reasons why debunking is so difficult.”

“Another reason is that when you’re the debunker you’re almost like a spoilsport. You’re kind of ruining the joke, especially when it comes to an entertaining story.”

On The Media: Uncorrected Rumors

See also


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