February 4, 2005

Keep on typing…

Sharon Begley reports for the Wall Street Journal about a new study of memory. The study apparently demonstrates that information that conforms to ideology tends to stick even after that information is proven false. The study is to be published in soon in Psychological Science:

“People build mental models,” explains Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychology professor at the University of Western Australia, Crawley…”By the time they receive a retraction, the original misinformation has already become an integral part of that mental model, or world view, and disregarding it would leave the world view a shambles.” Therefore, he and his colleagues conclude in their paper, “People continue to rely on misinformation even if they demonstrably remember and understand a subsequent retraction.”

I’ve read similar conclusions about the role of ideology in studies of schema theory, although some of these scholars assert that we can and do change our schemas as we gain new information. This would also suggest that ideology is open to change.

Do we require certain environmental conditions to obtain for us to make such use of new information or corrected information? For example, would the experiment upon which this study was based have turned out differently in a less contentious environment? Would the experiment have turned out differently if subjects had been presented with a less contentious (and pathetic) issue? In other words, would we be more likely to accept the corrected information if we felt safe in doing so?

Toward the end, Begley says something I find particularly interesting:

The news media would do well to keep in mind that once we report something, some people will always believe it even if we try to stuff the genie back in the bottle.

Here we see a problem not only with reporting about scientific studies but also the problem with the old journalism-as-lecture rhetoric. What Begley asserts applies equally to journalists–in as much as they are people, too. The danger here for journalists isn’t that readers will fail to correct their own thinking. That comes second. The danger here is that journalists will fail to correct their own thinking! (Now go back and reconsider those questions I asked above.)

We could begin listing here the numerous silly things that reporters write (not even talking columnists here)–especially about politicians and politics–that have long been proven false or misleading. And it appears that no amount of correcting does any good at all. They just keep typing.

11 Responses

  1. [standing ovation at keyboard]

    restated: “The news media would do well to keep in mind that once we report something, we the media will always believe it even if our readers try to stuff the genie back in the bottle.”

  2. S- This isn’t much of a revelation, but I find it amusing the reporter didn’t pick up on it 🙂 This reminds me that I must add something about professional socialization and professional schemas to my media/political bias page.

  3. rgrafton 

    I saw one of these weird “mental models” form last year in the NYTimes, and I have never looked at the Times or any MSM the same since. This had to do with F9/11. Before it came out, Michael Moore’s publicist announced that Disney (or some subsidiary, I can’t keep all the media inbreeding straight!) refused to distributed F9/11 because Jeb Bush had put pressure on Disney because Disneyworld is located in FL and F9/11 was critical of his brother. Of course, both Bush and Disney denied it, and Disney said it never had a distribution deal with Moore for F9/11. Of course, this tied into the two great boogymen for NYTimes, eeeeevil corporations and the Bush family, so they ran with it, even the though the source was Moore’s publicist. This meme was repeated over and over again every time an article about F9/11 appeared in NYTimes. After a while, Michael Moore admitted he just made it all up in order to generate publicity to get a distributor for his movie so he could enter it at Cannes. The Times reporter (can’t rememer who) said, Ho!Ho! Michael, you pulled a fast one on us and we fell for it. But the very next time this reporter wrote about F9/11 he repeated the lie that Jeb Bush/Disney had tried to suppress distribution for 9/11. I haven’t believed anything I’ve seen in NYTimes since.

  4. Heh.

    “professional socialization and professional schemas”

    Would that include a class and loyalty bias?

  5. acline 

    R- Yes, that would be another example.

    Re: class and loyalty bias

    Perhaps. It certainly includes the other nine. In fact, I could refer to them as schemas rather than biases. That might even be more correct than the more typical “frames.”

  6. Well, I’d hate to disagree with a former journalist and professor of rhetoric, but … oh, ok, I love disagree with you (;-), I learn more that way.

    I am still advocating thinking in layers. I think the “schema” would be a great way to differentiate between, perhaps, schema at the lowest layer, biases at the middle layer and frames at the top, or presentation layer.

  7. acline 

    S- Man, I don’t have all the answers. It’s absolutely no big deal to disagree with an egghead 🙂

    Re: layers Yes, interesting.

  8. Sisyphus 

    Jeff Jarvis: “Alterman said that from mainstream media, he can’t get the view from the ground in Iraq and perspective he is looking for and so “one place I go for that on Iraq more than anywhere else is a blog by a professor by the name of Juan Cole.” Note that Alterman now says he has never read Iraqi blogs. Note also that it was Cole who first spread the tin-hat speculation about the CIA and Iraqi blogs. Note finally that this appearance comes after The New York Times also spread this tin-hat speculation.”

    Talking about the genie.

    I think layers are a great way to gain perspective into both the psychological aspect of journalism, as well as the institutional and constraints imposed by the medium chosen.

  9. acline 

    S- I will give this layers idea serious consideration.

  10. Anna 

    What consequences should there be for repeating long-dead “al gore invented the internet” – type ‘facts’? (if there are no consequences, there will be no change)

    We need to come up with something equivalent to writing “[I will not say X since it is untrue]” on the blackboard 100 times.

  11. One reason there are no consequences is that far too many in the press don’t think such statements are errors. They have become master narratives and, therefore, are “true.”

    I learned first-hand about how stubborn journalists can be when they get locked into a master narrative. I once demonstrated to a reporter from the KC Star exactly how the press was getting it all wrong about a local story that made national news (including 60 Minutes–the Piper H.S. plagiarism case). I had real data. Not opinion. She interviewed me for more than an hour. Not one word or one idea of mine every showed up in print. My narrative did not fit with what “everyone” had accepted as true. 60 Minutes wouldn’t return my calls (not at all surprising–my narrative was not as dramatic).

    The only people who can stop this are editors who care enough to look past the master narratives and conventional wisdom.