Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all

After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.

In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.

Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:

Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]

FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]

Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]

President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]

Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]

This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)

*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.

That has invited three questions – where is fake news coming from, does it have an effect, and what can be done to stop it? Continue reading “Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all”

Should debate moderators fact check? Polling, psychology & reaching Millennials

Tonight, a likely record-setting television audience will watch the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. And the majority of that audience will not trust any of the three people on the stage. Would fact checking change any of that?

Tonight, a likely record-setting television audience will watch the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. And the majority of that audience will not trust any of the three people on the stage.

Donald Trump is distrusted by 57% of Americans, according to last weekend’s ABC/Washington Post poll. As with so much in this bizzaro-world election, that would be a damning figure if not for his opponent – 60% of those surveyed viewed Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy.

The moderator of the debate, NBC’s Lester Holt, meanwhile, is the stand in for “the media,” which is less trusted than either historically distrusted presidential candidate. Only 32% of Americans have at least a “fair amount” of trust in media, according to a Gallup poll released in mid-September.

So, it’s not surprising that we’re talking a lot about fact checking at the debates. The question is whether or not it’s the role of an agent of the widely distrusted media to call out either widely distrusted candidate on claims that are demonstrably false.

Plenty has been written about whether fact checking is the moderator’s role. The moderator of the third debate, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, has already said he doesn’t think it’s his job. Yesterday, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates agreed with Wallace’s stance, in an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources, saying that live fact-checking was too much of a grey area.

I want to approach this from a slightly different angle – would a fact-checking moderator benefit anyone? And if so, who?

First, we need to look into the minds of voters, and under the hood of the polling data.

Continue reading “Should debate moderators fact check? Polling, psychology & reaching Millennials”

[Weekly Rundown] Muhammad Ali tributes; Uncle Verne and Joe Buck; a Christian rocker comes out; what is tronc?

Today, we’re sports-heavy – honoring The Greatest, more Baylor fallout (now featuring Mississippi State), and sports broadcasters accused of bias. That, plus a Christian rocker comes out, social media faces censorship, and something called tronc.

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Sports

Muhammad Ali died Saturday night. If you only knew him as a boxer, I hope you’ll take all the tributes as an opportunity to learn more.

The news broke as I was finalizing this week’s rundown, but people more attuned to great sports writing have been curating your must-reads. I recommend this list from Don Van Natta and Jacob Feldman’s Sunday Long Read newsletter.

From a sports media perspective, ESPN did something I can’t recall seeing before. They went live in the wee hours Saturday with their top journalistic talent. Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap anchored a SportsCenter that was relaxed in pace, letting both men and their guests share longform stories about Ali. Deadspin, who loves to hate on the Worldwide Leader, offered praise, and captured a 12-minute segment for you to watch. SI’s Richard Deitsch has the behind-the-scenes look at how the late-night broadcast came together.

This probably isn’t your first time to see the photo at the top of today’s post. It was taken by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated in 1965, and remains one of history’s most iconic sports photographs. Many stories have been written about it since. Here’s a longread by Dave Mondy published about a year ago that explores the photographer and the fighters he captured. Continue reading “[Weekly Rundown] Muhammad Ali tributes; Uncle Verne and Joe Buck; a Christian rocker comes out; what is tronc?”

Involvement Types and Hostile Media Perception: A Consideration of Campus News

PrintPresented March 27, 2015 at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Southeast Colloquium, Knoxville, Tenn., Newspaper and Online News Division.

Information about accessing this paper and associated materials available here, or by visiting the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

Hostile media perception (HMP) is a fascinating occurrence. Have two people highly invested in different sides of a divisive issue read the same newspaper article, or watch the same interview, and they will each declare emphatically the exact same message to be hostile toward their side of the argument. We’ve documented this for decades; what we struggle to explain is exactly why it occurs, which makes it difficult to correct for the bias.

This paper – part of a larger study – examines one possible explanation that could equip journalists and other message creators with a way to conquer HMP. We’ve long suggested that higher levels of involvement lead to more careful, and therefore more accurate message processing. The problem for partisans is that when your mind is full of arguments defending your position, thinking about a new argument more carefully probably isn’t going to result in objective reasoning.

Another way of looking at involvement is not in its extremity, but rather its type. Following Johnson and Eagly’s conceptualizations (1989, 1990), this study looked at how value, outcome, and impression involvement related to HMP. Briefly, value involvement refers to deeply held convictions, beliefs, and… well… values. The principles that guide your life. Those contribute to and are shaped by partisanship. They’re also pretty important things to defend, thus likely predictive of HMP. Outcome involvement is triggered when you recognize tangible consequences associated with a message. It would seem to be a deterrent to HMP. You may hate the IRS and everything they stand for, but if news breaks about a change to the tax code that could get you a big refund (or hit you with a huge hike), you might put aside your feelings and try to figure out the particulars. Impression involvement has more to do with fitting in socially, with a tendency to be weaker and more normative than the other involvement types. The assumption is that it won’t affect HMP, but that’s never been tested empirically.

So, an experiment was conducted. Participants – students on a college campus that had just experienced bouts of fraternity and sorority misconduct – read fictitious newspaper articles about disciplinary sanctions being taken against the Greek organizations. This context produced strong partisans on both sides of the issue. And, the more extreme one’s opinion about whether the sanctions were a good idea, the greater the perception that the newspaper article was taking the exact opposite stance – classic HMP.

The involvement types, however, didn’t behave as anticipated. Value involvement predicted increased HMP among those opposed to sanctions, but was overshadowed by the strong influence of outcome involvement. Instead of counteracting perceptual biases, high outcome involvement only served to heighten HMP. For supporters of the sanctions, value involvement actually served as a weak resistance to HMP. About the only clear and expected result was the lack of a relationship between impression involvement and HMP.

Digging deeper into the data, it looked like the strange findings regarding involvement types might have been the result of quick, heuristic defense mechanisms on the part of pro-Greek participants. While supporters of sanctions perceived differences in various article versions fairly accurately, those opposing sanctions saw less nuance and almost uniform bias. This researcher has an idea as to what might have been the catalyst for that information processing shortcut, and explores it in the second phase of this study… coming soon. (Well, soon-ish… he has to finish his dissertation first.)

The Effect of Instant Media Commentary on Perceptions of Political Speakers: A Conventional Case Study

aejmc14Presented August 9, 2014 at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Montreal, Qc., Canada, Electronic News Division.

For more information about this paper available here, or by visiting the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

Television news networks regularly allow us to see live instances of political communication – presidential addresses and candidate debates, for instance. Those communications are immediately followed by an attempt by anchors and commentators to contextualize and analyze what has just been aired. This instant media commentary has long been a source of concern for government officials. If media are biased in their coverage (which is the position of more Americans than perhaps any other time in our history) then this position of first impression could hold great persuasive power.

There is some evidence that instant media commentary can color our perceptions of presidential debates. However, those events are already subject to obfuscation. After all, the entire context of a debate is adversarial, with the audience left to evaluate numerous conflicting messages. This study seeks to extend that research to single-speaker political events, in which an opposing view is absent. Does instant media commentary still have the ability to influence audiences that have been exposed to a more cohesive argument? Embracing the adversarial view of the press, can it step in and ask tough questions with any real consequence?

Today, party nominating conventions are well polished spectacles – a full week ceded to one party to present a controlled message and an ideal depiction of a candidate. Television plays a significant role in this presentation – conventions are afforded primetime coverage by network television, and receive almost the entirety of the news cycle on 24-hour cable news channels.

As it turns out, this spotlight can have a big effect on a candidate’s presidential aspirations. Research has documented what Campbell, Cherry, and Wink dubbed the “convention bump,” in which spikes in public support immediately following a convention can carry through to the general election.

Convention speeches seemed an excellent context to test the effects of instant media commentary of single-speaker events. For this study, participants viewed the keynote address of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at the 2012 Republican National Convention. (This study was completed before “Bridgegate,” and pre-test questions confirmed that Christie was a relatively obscure political figure to most observers at the time.) After the speech, participants were exposed to one of three sets of commentary (favorable-unfavorable-neutral), all from the Fox News telecast that evening. A control group watched the speech with no commentary. To test the effect of the “instant” nature of the commentary, some participants were given five minutes to think about the speech before proceeding to the commentary condition, while the rest watched the commentary in real time.

Among the Findings:

– A good speech delivered on a national stage can still move the needle for an aspiring political figure. Even liberal audience members found Christie to be a credible and talented speaker, though, as expected, conservative audiences embraced him the most. More importantly, the speech was especially persuasive to those who did not usually pay attention to politics – an audience primetime convention speeches reach better than most political communication.

– The effect of instant media commentary on audience perceptions might be overstated. All commentary conditions resulted in similar speaker impressions across receiver ideology. In fact, the only consistent finding was that viewers in the control group (no commentary) thought better of Christie, and even had stronger voting intentions.

– The “instant” nature of commentary may not be all that important. Taking a break between speech and commentary did not significantly change perceptions of Christie.

– So, what was really going on between the commentary groups and the control group? This study leaves plenty of room for speculation. Maybe it was the media outlet. All participants, regardless of ideology, perceived the Fox News commentary (even the negative condition) to be favorable toward Christie. Perhaps Fox’s reputation as a right-leaning news outlet primed audiences to expect a certain tone of coverage, and then see it, regardless of the reality. Interestingly, while this hurt media credibility among liberals and moderates, it actually increased media credibility among conservatives.

– Maybe it’s just the media. Evaluations of media speakers were considerably lower than evaluations of Christie. Folks don’t care for the press, we know, but this dislike may negatively affect impression development of the subjects being covered. After all, impressions of Christie dropped even when media commentary was entirely positive.

This was one of those projects that inspired more questions than answers, but was fun to interpret nevertheless. Replication in different contexts, with different source cues may help work through the various explanations for the results seen here.

Covering the Conventions: Bias in Pre and Post-speech Media Commentary during the 2012 Presidential Nominating Conventions

aejmc

Presented August 10, 2013 at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), Washington, D.C., Political Communication Interest Group.

This paper was previously presented at the 2013 AEJMC Southeast Colloquium in Tampa, Fla., where it received the Top Paper Award for the Electronic News Division. AEJMC permits re-submission of regional papers to the national conference.

To request the accompanying poster for this paper, email Dylan.

To read the abstract and request the full paper, go to the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

SYNOPSIS:

Party nominating conventions used to be messy and meaningful. Today, they’re more pomp and circumstance. It’s no wonder the broadcast television networks pay far less attention to them now than in decades past. For cable news, on the other hand, the conventions provide fuel – or at least a moving backdrop – to the 24-hour news cycle. And in the pauses between speakers, the talking heads weigh-in with their analysis.

There is a healthy amount of research suggesting that the party nominating conventions can influence voters, as well as a stack of studies that indicate media analysis of political events can influence voters. However, the specific cross-section between conventions and commentary has not been evaluated.

Does instant media commentary affect perceptions of convention speeches? This study lays the foundation for that investigation by looking at how favorably (or unfavorably) different news networks covered the 2012 Republican and Democratic national conventions.

We looked at a large sample of live convention coverage – all six nights of primetime (10 p.m. E.T.) on the three major broadcast (ABC, CBS, NBC) and cable (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC) networks. Here’s what we learned:

  • Convention coverage was generally favorable to the host party.
  • Bias was indicated by an exaggeration of this positive commentary, and near absence of negative commentary (for instance, coverage of the DNC on MSNBC was 3% negative; the RNC on Fox News was only 2% negative). In other words, unbalanced coverage was not the result of tearing one side down, but by disproportionately praising the other.
  • The largest differences in valence were observed on Fox News & MSNBC, though some statistical tests revealed evidence of bias in traditional network broadcasts.

We look forward to enriching this study with further data from the content analysis, including potential explanatory mechanisms. Next, we desire to test the effects of such instant media commentary on the audience (presently in the data collection phase). We extend our thanks to the reviewers, moderator, and discussant for taking the time to read our paper and provide valuable feedback.

Covering the Conventions: Bias in Pre and Post-speech Media Commentary during the 2012 Presidential Nominating Conventions

aejmc USF

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presented March 1, 2013 at the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium, Tampa, Fla. Electronic News Division, Top Paper Award.

To request the accompanying PowerPoint, email Dylan.

To read the abstract and request the full paper, go to the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

SYNOPSIS:

Party nominating conventions used to be messy and meaningful. Today, they’re more pomp and circumstance. It’s no wonder the broadcast television networks pay far less attention to them now than in decades past. For cable news, on the other hand, the conventions provide fuel – or at least a moving backdrop – to the 24-hour news cycle. And in the pauses between speakers, the talking heads weigh-in with their analysis.

There is a healthy amount of research suggesting that the party nominating conventions can influence voters, as well as a stack of studies that indicate media analysis of political events can influence voters. However, the specific cross-section between conventions and commentary has not been evaluated.

Does instant media commentary affect perceptions of convention speeches? This study lays the foundation for that investigation by looking at how favorably (or unfavorably) different news networks covered the 2012 Republican and Democratic national conventions.

We looked at a large sample of live convention coverage – all six nights of primetime (10 p.m. E.T.) on the three major broadcast (ABC, CBS, NBC) and cable (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC) networks. Here’s what we learned:

  • Convention coverage was generally favorable to the host party.
  • Bias was indicated by an exaggeration of this positive commentary, and near absence of negative commentary (for instance, coverage of the DNC on MSNBC was 3% negative; the RNC on Fox News was only 2% negative). In other words, unbalanced coverage was not the result of tearing one side down, but by disproportionately praising the other.
  • The largest differences in valence were observed on Fox News & MSNBC, though some statistical tests revealed evidence of bias in traditional network broadcasts.

We look forward to enriching this study with further data from the content analysis, including potential explanatory mechanisms. Next, we desire to test the effects of such instant media commentary on the audience. We extend our thanks to the School of Mass Communications at the University of South Florida for hosting the event, and the paper judges for honoring us with the Top Paper Award in the Electronic News Division.