Those with strong news literacy unlikely to believe conspiracy theories, study finds

CHAMPAIGN, III — The better your news literacy, the less likely you’ll fall for conspiracy theories, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Illinois surveyed almost 400 online participants about their level of confidence in ten popular conspiracy theories, many discredited, while attempting to evaluate each participant’s ability to use news media literacy skills.

Person reading newspaper
A new study finds that people who are well-versed in the ways of the mainstream media are less likely to believe conspiracy theories hold water. (Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash)

Some of the media literacy skills examined included those related to industry knowledge and conducive psychological traits (i.e., any attitudes that could inhibit the proper processing of news messages).

Discovering that “individuals who give credence to conspiracy theories know comparatively little about how the news media work,” the researchers added their finding that “the greater one’s knowledge about the news media — from the kinds of news covered, to the commercial context in which news is produced, to the effects on public opinion news can have — the less likely one will fall prey to conspiracy theories.”

These findings even applied to conspiracy theories of a partisan nature, which was found through additional questions posed.

The ten conspiracy theories presented, split between ones emanating from a liberal or conservative viewpoint, showed that those who had higher literacy were simply less likely to endorse a theory’s claims, regardless of their political ideology.

The researchers emphasize that such beliefs are “not the sole province of the proverbial nut-job,” and that a “compelling narrative and one’s pre-existing biases are often no match for conflicting information.”

While acknowledging the various factors that may allow for credence in unsubstantiated stories, Stephanie Craft, the study’s lead author, believes that news media literacy may be able to provide some form of counterbalance.

To improve news media literacy, she implores that schools teach it, while journalists consider “being more open about how they do what they do.”

“One of the tricky areas for people in the news literacy area is you want to encourage skepticism, you want to encourage people to be actively thinking about news, not just consuming it like candy,” Craft says in a university news release. “But there’s kind of a fine line between being a skeptical news consumer and a cynical one, where the cynical one would just think, ‘Oh well, they all make stuff up, they all do it, it’s all wrong.’ That doesn’t serve anyone, either.”

Craft et al. published their findings in the journal Communication and the Public.


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