COLUMBUS, Ohio — “Fake news” is a term that has dominated the national conversation in recent years. Millions of Americans, both liberal and conservative, are questioning the information being fed to them by major news sources. Interestingly, a new study finds that when it comes to news credibility, people come to their conclusions based on more than just factual and accurate reporting.
Researchers at Ohio State University have found that even if people believe a news source is reporting entirely factual information, they still will not believe it if they feel the source is biased towards a certain belief. The study’s authors say that this means people really have two problems with today’s American news media: fake news and biased news.
This is especially noteworthy because prior research on the topic of fake news had suggested that news credibility was linked to trustworthiness and expertise, not bias.
“I use the example of grandparents,” explains lead author Laura Wallace in a release. “Most everyone agrees that grandparents are honest. But if Grandma says that her grandson Johnny is the best soccer player around, most people will smile politely but not believe her. She’s obviously biased.”
Researchers conducted several experiments to come to their conclusions, including one consisting of 169 undergraduate students. For this experiment, students read a fictional conversation between two Ebola relief workers in the Congo regarding where to allocate their resources. One version of the conversation mentioned that one of the workers, Roger, had previously worked in the same village he was advocating sending more resources to.
Afterwards, students were asked to evaluate the two workers’ resource allocation ideas. Despite both workers being described as “highly trained,” the students who read the version of the story mentioning Roger’s prior time in a particular village stated that Roger’s idea was less credible.
“The guys in this scenario are all trying their best to contain this Ebola outbreak, they all know what they’re doing, and they are all seen as very honest,” Wallace says. “But people believe that Roger’s experience in one of these regions is affecting his judgment and that he just can’t see things objectively.”
While these results indicate that bias impacts credibility just as dishonesty does, Wallace and her team say that biased but factual news sources can still prove more useful than outlets that are just lying.
“In the case of biased, but honest sources, the information they present might only support one side of the issue, but at least people can treat the information as useful for understanding that side,” Wallace comments. “Untrustworthy sources may never be that useful.”
Researchers also noticed that when a biased source does end up changing its position on a topic, people assume it must be for good reason, and may rethink their own beliefs. This was not the case for untrustworthy sources, since people naturally assume these outlets are unpredictable by nature.
The study is published in the scientific journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.