Challenges in reporting misinformation
Public service broadcasters, however, face a number of challenges in reporting misinformation. The first has to do with maintaining a balanced and impartial news service while also making clear judgments about the veracity of claims and counter-claims. Analysis of the 2017 general election coverage discovered that 67 percent of fact-checks included a clear verdict about the validity of the claims examined; the rest were mostly ‘explainers’, ‘similar to news analysis articles in mainstream journalism’ (Birks 2019b, 41). When the analysis was undertaken again during the 2019 election campaign, the decisiveness of fact-checking verdicts increased (Birks 2019c). But the research revealed both the difficulties in unpacking non-factual claims that are part of an election campaign and the reluctance of public service media to ‘label’ politicians ‘as liars’, leaving that ‘judgement for audiences to make about an individual’s motives’ (Jordan 2019). Without explaining the reasoning behind claims, however, and being limited to narrow empirical clarifications, fact-checking can do little to improve the quality of public debate (Birks 2019b, 83). Furthermore, in attempting to treat political parties impartially and pay equal attention to dubious statements, journalists risk constructing a false equivalence between competing claims. Such an approach can contribute to the public’s feeling of mistrust and helplessness about understanding which political actors and parties lie to them the most (Rosen 2009).
A second challenge has to do with the choice of claims being fact-checked. This is a difficulty intrinsic in fact-checking as a journalistic practice. Narrow empirical facts, such as the numbers of hospitals being built by the government (Hutchison & Murray 2019), are far easier to fact-check than broad promises such as ‘getting Brexit done’ (Morris 2019). While fact-checking empirical facts is important, it does sometimes overlook the ways these facts are being employed in political argumentation. The political significance of facts is defined by the political context within which they are instrumentalised. In our view, fact-checking could do more to engage with both in order to help the public understand competing political claims. Furthermore, research suggests broadcasters focus largely on fact-checking political claims, especially during election campaigns, which is of limited scope. Moreover, this focus can reproduce elite discourses (Birks 2019b, 92) while ignoring the politics of everyday life. Political misinformation is not restricted to campaign promises or statements of the most prominent politicians. Furthermore, misinformation and fake news are proliferating in social media and online partisan media (Vargo et al. 2018) and play an important role in public understandings of politics. Neglecting this type of misinformation dismisses the diversity of ways media users become informed about the world and risks further alienating the public from legacy media. Identifying and challenging such types of misinformation, however, is a difficult task for public service broadcasters.
The call for a more alert approach to journalism, exemplified by but not restricted to factchecking, rests, of course, on the assumption that such a development will have a positive impact on public knowledge and engagement with politics. Research on the efficacy of such journalistic practices, however, is inconclusive. Public misperceptions do not seem to always be the result of misinformation. Experiments have shown that people engage with motivated reasoning when confronted with misinformation (Schaffner & Roche 2017) and are, therefore, prone to reject corrective messages that challenge their worldview (Lewandowsky et al. 2012). Exposure to misinformation may cause ‘belief echoes’ that remain, even when misinformation is corrected, because of the reasoning that ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ (Thorson 2016, 461). Despite, for example, fact-checkers’ producing clear-cut judgments that the UK does not send .£350 million per week to the EU, nearly half the British public still believed the claim days before the EU referendum vote (Stone 2016). Birks has shown how, during the 2017 general election campaign, accusations of bias against @BBCRealityCheck by Twitter users were expressive of motivated reasoning and a broader mistrust of the BBC overall as, in some cases, it was evident that these users had not even read the tweets they were attacking (Birks 2019b, 56).
At the same time, however, evidence shows that people tend to have more favourable attitudes towards the media when fact-checking is employed (Amazeen 2019, 543). Research also suggests people have generally positive views of fact-checking and that randomised exposure to it helps them become better informed (Nyhan & Reifler 2015). Despite the inconsistencies of the findings and the mostly experimental nature of the research, there is evidence that particular forms of fact-checking can be more effective than others (Thorson 2016). Adopting a more forensic approach to fact-checking in day-to-day news reporting represents a longer-term process of change in journalism. As a consequence, how audiences respond to new conventions and practices will be understood in the longer term, rather than in relation to short-term effects that many fact-checking studies measure.