When Lies Matter: The Effect of Media Coverage of Misinformation in the Health Care Reform Debate on Public Opinion

by Jordan Humphries

Much has been made of mis-information in the media as of late—from PolitiFact’s Pulitzer-winning fact-checking to recent condemnation of the organization as biased in its corrections. The role of untruths in the health care reform debate has been examined by researchers fascinated by the spread of Sarah Palin’s 2009 “death panels” claim—one that garnered belief by 30% of Americans after the ex-governor’s mere mention of it, as well as the title, Lie of the Year by PolitiFact.

My study builds on contemporary research on misinformation with an experiment to determine the extent to which journalistic practices help propagate misperceptions about health care reform and political information more generally. The study exposed 744 participants to one of four stories: a control, a story quoting a Republican presidential candidate with a piece of health care reform misinformation, one with that quote corrected by PolitiFact, and a story with the quote and same correction instead attributed to The White House.

The study determined that PolitiFact, as a non-partisan fact-checking organization, is an effective tool for debunking misinformation, while coverage of policy facts as partisan differences of opinion (a frequent practice according to researchers) can dangerously direct citizens to form misinformation-influenced opinions about policies, like repealing the health care reform law and determining the law to be unconstitutional in this study. This study found that, despite decreased misperceptions in politically knowledgeable and attentive citizens, partisanship (support for political party and support for a candidate) as well as interest in topics related to the misinforming claim led to higher rates of misperceptions. This is to say that misperceptions can be corrected by explicitly labeling them false and backing up that ruling with a reliable source.

This study argues that journalists use resources like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact to buttress their reporting because, in this world of heightened partisan polarization, objectivity is rare and valued by citizens as a result. These organizations make smart tools for journalists because they prepare reports and make judgments about the truth of political claims within hours of their utterance.

In this hyper-mediated world, it can be just as easy to propagate misinformation as it can be to correct it, and if more journalists aided fact-checkers by making indictments on the basis of truth as opposed to getting both sides’ opinions, we may be able to shift the impetus to report the truth from journalists back to politicians to keep them honest under fear of humiliation by being the next Liar of the Year.