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Fighting fact-free journalism: a how-to guide

A growing cohort of commentators has bemoaned the descent of contemporary political “debate” into a largely fact-free zone. People used to be entitled to their own opinions, but not their own set of facts…

It can be hard to sort fact from fiction in the modern media environment. Mike Bailey-Gates

A growing cohort of commentators has bemoaned the descent of contemporary political “debate” into a largely fact-free zone.

People used to be entitled to their own opinions, but not their own set of facts. In the contemporary spectacle that passes for politics, it appears as though politicians are also entitled to make up their own facts at will.

There are small but encouraging signs that this era of post-fact politics might be coming to an end.

The boundary between truth and falsehood has arguably been eroded during the past few decades, aided in part by a media which has gradually discarded actual journalism that establishes and reports facts in favour of “he-said-she-said” churnalism.

This trend has made it possible for outlandish and patently false claims, such as the imaginary uncertainty surrounding President Obama’s place of birth, to be given extended coverage by the “mainstream” media, rather than being speedily dismissed upon investigation for complete lack of substance.

Truth vigilantes

Into this fact-free media world exploded a bombshell earlier this year when public editor of the New York Times Arthur Brisbane asked whether the paper should be a “truth vigilante”. Brisbane asks “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

Excuse me?!

Isn’t this why we have a free press in the first place?

The very fact this question is posed reveals the full depth of the vortex into which some Western societies have descended — Australia, sadly, among them. But the fact the question was posed also shows this crisis is beginning to penetrate even the minds of those who are partially responsible for it in the first place. This is surely an encouraging sign.

Moons and myths

In light of all this, how might we restore the twin notions of “fact” and “reality” to public discourse?

If people mistakenly believe the moon is made of green cheese, how can we help them acquire a more realistic view of the world? Research in cognitive science can help answer that question.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as saying “actually, the moon is not made of green cheese.”

It is not even sufficient to say it repeatedly.

So how do we then correct misinformation?

Enter the Debunking Handbook.

The Debunking Handbook is a freely available booklet written by two of the present authors which provides practical tips to effectively debunk misinformation and avoid pitfalls. The booklet reviews and explains some of the recent research on misinformation effects, and we provide a quick summary here.

Backfire effects

The first thing we need to realise is that simple retractions are often ineffective. For example, when a person — let’s call him John — is accused of a crime, a simple statement that John has been found innocent will not suffice to eradicate people’s suspicions of John. Even if people understand and remember the retraction, the initial accusation will have an ongoing effect on people’s understanding of the crime and their attitude towards the accused.

This persistence of misinformation arises because people build “mental models” of the world based on the information they are given. When some of this information later turns out to be wrong, a gap is left in this mental model. Having these gaps feels uncomfortable, so in the absence of a better explanation, people often opt for the initial, easily available explanation even if it is wrong.

Even retracting an untruth multiple times may not do the trick. That’s perhaps a bit surprising because repetition is one of the most potent ways to increase belief in an assertion.

Do you really believe the moon is made of cheese? . mar .

Hence claiming over and over again that the moon is made of cheese will actually make people believe it more. (In a world in which a majority of Republican primary voters can express doubts about President Obama’s place of birth we will stick with the absurd moon example in order not to inadvertently trigger more viral untruths). Yet, repeating the retraction will have only a small effect and some misinformation effects will still linger after multiple retractions.

Alas, not only are simple retractions pretty ineffective, some debunking tactics can actually backfire and ironically amplify the misinformation effects. The debunking handbook describes three such “backfire” effects.

The “familiarity” backfire effect arises because retractions often repeat the misinformation (for example, “the moon is not made of green cheese” repeats the moon-cheese association). This makes the false link appear more familiar, and familiar arguments are more likely to be accepted as true. The “overkill” backfire effect implies that people may be more likely to accept the green-cheese hypothesis the more one throws contrary arguments at them. Worse yet, if people’s core beliefs rest on the assumption that the moon is made of green cheese, then any direct attempt to alter their beliefs may meet resistance and lead to entrenchment of the original misinformation. This is called the “worldview” backfire effect.

So what can you do to avoid these backfire effects?

Fill in the gaps

First of all remember a retraction will leave a gap in a person’s understanding of the world, so the correction should try to fill the gap. Sometimes this is easy. In the crime example, if the true culprit has been found, the gap in the mental model can easily be filled — it wasn’t John, it was Jim. Providing plausible and valid alternative information will drastically reduce reliance on misinformation.

Another gap worth filling after a retraction is to explain why the misinformation may have been presented in the first place.

Promoting a sceptical look at both the evidence itself and who presented the evidence (and what their agenda might be) is undoubtedly a good thing. “So Jack told you it was John? Well, guess what, Jack is Jim’s cousin”. A healthy sense of scepticism helps people tell the wrong from the right.

Don’t add fuel to the fire

First, one should not start a debunk by repeating the myth. Begin with the truth: the moon is a rock.

In some cases, repeating the myth is unavoidable when trying to debunk it; otherwise people may not know what you’re talking about. But if the myth has to be repeated, repeat it after presenting the facts.

Also, any myth repetition should be prefaced with a warning. Warnings put people in a cognitive mode of strategic monitoring and can hence reduce effects of misinformation.

Back to basics

Next, keep it simple. Stick to the facts. Leave out irrelevant details. Choose the strongest argument(s) and focus on what’s important. If you can offer one strong reason why the misinformation is false, leave it at that — do not accompany a strong reason with a few weaker ones; they may undermine your strong case.

Use simple language. Avoid the standard science terms relating to probability and the ever-looming possibility of falsification — “highly likely” and “strongly suggests” mean different things to a scientist and the man in the street.

Begin and end on a strong and simple message that people will remember and tweet to their friends, such as “study shows MMR vaccines are safe.”

Use simple graphics to illustrate your points.

Know your audience

The trickiest backfire effect to deal with is arguably the worldview backfire effect. Fact is, all the evidence in the world will not change the view of the hardcore moon-cheese believer.

There’s just no reaching some people. Fibonacci Blue

But you stand a greater chance of correcting misinformation among those not as firmly decided. Hence debunking should be directed towards the undecided majority rather than the unswayable (and usually most vocal) minority. There is no point arguing with “birthers” about the President’s birth place, but you can address rational adults.

Any debunking messages should also be worded and framed in a way that is least threatening to the recipient’s worldview. Using non-inflammatory language, or presenting the opportunities that a change-of-mind may bring with it, can go a long way in avoiding polarisation.

The full picture

So what’s the take-home message?

When debunking misinformation, don’t just retract. Give the facts. Warn people if you have to repeat the myth. Explain why the misinformation was given in the first place. Focus on what is most important. Use simple language and graphics. End on a strong take-home message. And begin by downloading the Debunking Handbook.

Join the conversation

33 Comments sorted by

  1. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email

    Interesting ... but you neglected to mention in your disclosure statement that you are spruiking your own booklet.

    1. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      The disclosure statement pertains to commercial interests. Since the booklet is available freely to anyone, there is no commercial COI.

    2. Megan Clement

      Deputy Editor, Politics + Society at The Conversation

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Hi Fred, Mat and Jay (below)

      It is mentioned in the text that "The Debunking Handbook is a freely available booklet written by two of the present authors". We are comfortable with that disclosure and that there has been no conflict of interest in commercial terms as the booklet is free.

      Best wishes,

    3. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email

      In reply to Megan Clement

      I am heartened by the disclosure policies of "The Conversation". They are extremely important, set you apart from the majority of other forums and need to be guarded in order to maintain credibility. Thank you for your response Megan.

  2. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    The article suggests simply reporting what politicians say - 'he-said-she-said'- is not 'reporting facts'.

    Instead, real journalists should report 'the truth'.

    It seems a tricky line to cross. How far can journalists intervene without becoming commentators?

    For example, when Gillard mentions a 'price on carbon', should a journalist interrupt and say, 'Sorry, Prime Minister, it's actually a tax. The rate is set by government and the money is collected by government'.

    Or should the journalist just provide that information as a footnote to the article?

    1. Phil Hambling

      Software Analyst Developer

      In reply to James Jenkin

      An interesting example you give, illustrating the pitfalls for journalists who aim higher than simple 'he-said-she-said' reporting.

      In your example, the journalist does the right thing, by challenging a perceived untruth, but unfortunately gets it wrong.

      In an Emissions Trading Scheme, the rate is set by the market and units are bought and sold by market participants. Only the introductory fixed price period operates like a tax. But to characterize the policy as a whole (to which Gillard refers…

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  3. Carole Hubbard


    One of the tactics this debunking system uses is to address arguments to the majority ... as if having the majority opinion makes something true. Quite often it takes the minority to see through some sort of government or corporate spin. I could argue every strategy used by this debunking system is flawed, and there's nothing worse than being "managed" by some sort of establishment pawn who has fallen for commonly held lies and tries to convert others to their way of thinking.

    1. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Carole Hubbard

      "Quite often it takes the minority to see through some sort of government or corporate spin."

      Too true. I think if you have enough people honestly contributing to the conversation then the good arguments will eventually weed out the bad. Be skeptical. Expect ulterior motives because there always are!

  4. Jay R

    Mining Engineer

    The article discusses journalistic problems, then goes on to spruik the authors' ebook and webpage. Just because it is free doesn't mean that there is no commercial conflict. If you are going to reference a source, and then encourage readers to download it, it should be mentioned that it was written by the same authors of the article.
    I agree that the ebook is relevant and should be mentioned to readers though, but needs to be in the right way.

    Anything less gives the impression that The Conversation is in the business of writing advertisements disguised as independent articles.

    1. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Jay R

      "Just because it is free doesn't mean that there is no commercial conflict".

      Hmm, how exactly does that work?

      The booklet, by the way, is based entirely on the peer-reviewed literature and was crafted as a public service to enable people to understand a fascinating aspect of cognition. There is nothing commercial about the book or anything within 100 miles of it.

      Pointing to it is no more "advertising" than pointing to a popular review article about dental hygiene in an article on dental hygiene (or any other discipline).

    2. Jay R

      Mining Engineer

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      Many things on the internet a free but funded for by advertisements. Some things are free because someone else has paid for it to push their own interests.

      The issue is that is you wrote the article suggesting to read the book that you also wrote. Failing to mention this will make any critical reader suspicious as to whether the article is independent or solely written to advertise his own work.

      My intention isn't to attack your integrity or suggest you have hidden agendas, only to point out that the way the article is written may look suspicious (and did to me) due to non-disclosed self promotion.

    3. Megan Clement

      Deputy Editor, Politics + Society at The Conversation

      In reply to Jay R

      Hi Jay,

      Not sure if you saw my comment above. It is disclosed in the text that the authors of the piece are the authors of the Debunking Handbook.

      Best wishes,

    4. Russell Hamilton


      In reply to Jay R

      Isn't this simply like posting an abstract and linking to the full (free) version? There's nothing hidden going on.

    5. Adam Lippiatt
      Adam Lippiatt is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Conversation Participant

      In reply to Megan Clement

      A lesson to Jay R(...?) and to us all. Read carefully before commenting! Pity the oversight (and the incorrect restatements) had to happen in respect of *this* article.

      I too think this is an important article and its observations rings true to me. Hopefully there are some strategies in the booklet to aid debunking the odd personal myth!

  5. Lorna Jarrett

    PhD, science educator and science advocate

    Misconceptions and strategies for effecting conceptual change in science education are my research area - it's fascinating to see the same ideas cropping up in another context. I wonder how much crossover there has been between the two fields - do the authors have any answers here?

    I'm going to download the manual and see if there are any new ideas that could apply to conceptual change in education.

    Meanwhile - a thought: it's well known by researchers in physics education that didactic methods…

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  6. Tim Dean

    Philosopher at UNSW Australia

    Terrific resource. Thanks for putting it together and The Conversation for helping promote it. Let's hope it's read widely.

  7. Graham Gower

    ex engineer, evol biology student

    Interesting document. I can't help but think that many of the same techniques could easily be used (and are being used) for "bunking" instead of the regular debunking that we might all have a preference for. The correctness of the information that can be argued using these techniques is largely irrelevant.

    Offtopic: I didn't really like your examples as I have a mental block against anything to do with the climate change debate. When I see someone arguing a point (warmist, or denialist) on this subject I automatically want to punch them in the face.

    1. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Graham Gower

      Well the test is easy. If you agree with me then it is debunking. If you disagree, then clearly you are bunking.

  8. Lucy Mae Mirren

    logged in via Facebook

    One addendum I would add to both the article and the booklet: Even the best educated, best funded, most confident, sincere and certain researcher can get it wrong, as well. Surprisingly often, indeed. I get the impression that that possibility doesn’t occur readily to the authors. That’s why I appreciate that we have, on the whole in Australia, a sceptical, searching media.

  9. Andrew Hack

    IT Project Manager

    Newsflash: everyone their biases, including journos! Get with the program. It's not that news firms have only just recently become political or even vessels for distributing political propaganda. They always have been!

    But people are only starting to realize this. Why? More people are turning to alternate sources as media is becoming cheaper to distribute. Isn't the internet wonderful. So it turns out, that media pluralism is a good thing.

    Lefties whinge and complain about the bias of the Murdoch…

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  10. Daryl Deal


    An excellent piece of work.

    As, the late Winston Churchill said:

    1/ "A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."

    2/ "Truth is incontrovertible, ignorance can deride it, panic may resent it, malice may destroy it, but there it is."

    Alas, the old fashioned basic journalism of reporting who, what, how, where, when and why, died the day that all higher learning institutions integrated and made the dominant core of modern journalism degrees "Political Science/Propaganda 101".

    It, is a very sad day indeed when advertising in the media is now more truthful that that which corporate media claims is news as Miss Piggy would say: -

  11. Dustin Welbourne

    PhD Candidate in Biogeography + Science Communicator at UNSW Australia

    Journalism has certainly changed over the years as new technology and a changing marketplace have grown. This change has seen the growth of the double edged swords of the internet, blogs and dedicated websites such as this one. The downside here is that it has created virtual ghettos where people do not wander pass their border to other sites to get challenging information.

    Thus my point, it seems that the only argument or discourse that takes place is often between the believer and non-believer…

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  12. Emma Anderson

    Artist and Science Junkie

    It occurs to me that the crime example is flawed. Firstly, the content of the original article, and it's availability, usually differs markedly from the retraction.

    A large photo of the alleged crook being arrested, looking ashamed, a mug shot and so forth, with the word 'alleged' being used sporadically or not at all. In short, the original text is usually inflammatory to begin with, to give the mere appearance of impartiality (so as to avoid libel/defamation suits) whilst selling copy. May…

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  13. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    Sometimes, the "truth" can be so hidden, so secret that unless you are fully informed of all of the intricacies and goings-on, that you may indeed be championing a cause believing fully that you are championing truth but are really just regurgitating misinformation that seems right in the face of a lack of (freely available) contradictory evidence.

    Then again, truth can be subjective and depends much upon the perspective of the observer. The world is not black and white. What we may call an act…

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  14. Laurel Papworth

    logged in via Twitter

    Perhaps better called "The impartial, non expert view to influence". A journalist is not an astronomer - I would be swayed by a passionate dedicated Astronomer and a Fromager over a journalist masquerading as impartial (but secretly trying to change my mind) any day of the week. Isn't this where journalism falls down? Building stories on the "facts" as believed by a non-expert (journalist) cobbled together from passionate experts. I'm not sure I'm successfully articulating the main issue that journalism faces today with claiming impartiality while trying to educate people but maybe its this: drop impartiality & go for opinion supported by external sources? Sells more newspapers too. Cheers :)

  15. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    "The Debunking Handbook is a freely available booklet written by two of the present authors . . ."

    You can beat a conflict out of almost anything but that was pretty clear to me when I read it.

  16. William Bruce


    Omission of truth is the main problem. Allowing comments after Media articles can hugely improve debate.
    I commend "The Conversation" for this. Sadly the ABC has recently discontinued this so that "bad thinking/reporting/propaganda" can now not be challenged.

    I recently saw these quotes below which are worth considering in the light of past reporting on Iraq, Libya &... & now Iran:-

    “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can…

    Read more