Editor’s note: Emily Van Duyn is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and co-wrote recent studies that examined the effects of labeling information “fake news” on public perceptions of journalists’ and news organizations’ credibility. Van Duyn spoke with News Bureau research editor Sharita Forrest about this trend.
When politicians use the phrase “fake news,” does it have a greater negative impact on the public’s perceptions of the media’s credibility than if media label what they believe is false or misleading information that way?
The source matters a great deal as to whether the phrase has an effect. We found that when the phrase “fake news” was used by a politician – even an imaginary one – to describe a news article on social media, people saw the news organization and its journalists as less credible compared with the news organization itself using that phrase.
This is a difficult finding for news organizations since they have little control over how politicians – or anyone, for that matter – describe their coverage. Still, it suggests that news media should work to counteract or respond to accusations that their work is fake news on social media, given the damaging effects this language can have on their perceived credibility.
Your study discusses the weaponization of the term fake news and suggests that the use of this phrase can damage a media outlet’s brand if they use it in their coverage or their advertising. What’s a better strategy for newsrooms to use?
Since we find that exposure to the phrase fake news can have disproportionate effects on how credible people find a news organization and its journalists, we suggest that media refrain from using the term.
We make this suggestion in light of advertising campaigns like those from The Wall Street Journal or CNN that try to distinguish themselves as “real news” while inevitably invoking the term fake news.
When referring to false information, we suggest that journalists use the terms “misinformation” or “disinformation,” depending on the intent with which the information was spread, as these termss are less likely to have a backfire effect on the perceived credibility of the journalist or their news organization.
In a prior study, you and your co-author found that elites’ – politicians and media organizations –calling attention to fake news had a priming effect that may be doing more harm than exposure to fake news itself. How so?
We wanted to know if exposure to the phrase affects people’s skepticism of and trust in real news and their ability to identify false news. We ran an experiment where we had participants look through a set of tweets. A random half of participants read tweets that contained the phrase fake news, which primed them to think about fake news for the rest of the study.
The other half – our control group – read tweets about the federal budget that did not contain that phrase. Then both groups viewed several real news articles and several false news articles, and we asked them whether they thought the articles were real or fake. We also asked both groups how much they trusted the news media in general.
Those primed with the phrase fake news were more likely to think the real news articles were fake, yet they were not more accurate in identifying the fake articles compared with the control group. The participants primed with the phrase also reported lower levels of trust in the news media.
This told us that exposure to the phrase may not be improving people’s accuracy at judging what sources are real and which are false. Instead, this may have a backfire effect on people’s belief and trust in real news sources.
With the public’s faith in news media at a record low – with just 32% of people professing “a great deal or fair amount” of faith in news organizations’ fairness and accuracy, according to your study, how can media outlets build and sustain trust with audiences?
There are proactive measures that journalists and news organizations can take to build trust with their audience without connoting or referencing fake news.
While our study focused on what news organizations should not do in order to limit negative effects on credibility, there is other research that offers suggestions for news media looking to build or enhance trust with their audiences.
For instance, one study found that news organizations that are transparent about the journalistic process – e.g., why and how a story was written, details about the author, etc. – are perceived as more credible than those that do not offer this level of transparency.
Similarly, other research shows that news organizations that engage with their audience in some way – for example, through online comment sections or audience story suggestions – tend to have higher levels of trust and perceived credibility.