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June 29, 2017, 12:47 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Since the 2016 presidential election, media groups like PolitiFact and The New York Times have expanded their fact-checking operations. Sites like Google and Facebook have given it more prominence in search results and social media feeds. But it’s like the old saying goes: You can lead a reader to a checked fact, but you can’t make them believe it.

That’s the core of what political science assistant professor Leslie Caughell has been investigating with the American Press Institute’s Accountability Journalism Project. She has been surveying Americans on their trust in the news media, specifically related to fact-checking. The full paper is due in September, but the API released some preliminary findings — including some suggestions for how journalists can make hot button issues more convincing to readers.

Caughell examined two methods that might have improved the credibility of fact checks — including a photo of the reporter to increase trust in the story itself or citing sources and including quotes from people whom readers already trust to support the fact check’s results. It turns out that adding a reporter’s picture doesn’t make a real difference in how much people are able to recall the information in the story — but they are more likely to remember the facts of the story if it cites sources that the reader trusts.

That trust, however, varies for the different kinds of sources she tested — corporations, government agencies, and academic research institutions. People who entered the experiment with more trust in a particular kind of source were also more likely to recall facts if that source was the type cited.

Her research also found interesting data about users’ assumptions about what defines a “journalist” and the “news media.”

  • 83 percent considered those working for print newspapers and broadcast programs on television networks as journalists.
  • 34 percent said pundits or those who write for op-ed pages are journalists.
  • 30 percent considered people who write for blogs/websites not associated with print or major broadcast programs are journalists.
  • 23 percent said people who post on social media platforms (again, not associated with major outlets) are journalists.

When asked to define the “news media,” 66 percent cited news programs on television networks. Other answers were:

  • 34 percent: traditional print sources
  • 10 percent: websites or blogs not run by print sources or networks
  • 10 percent: social media posts
  • 9 percent: comedy programs
  • 8 percent: programs aired on social media channels, such as YouTube
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