By Gary Hengstler
Fact checking? Fake News? Alternative facts? Alternate realities?
Welcome to the new intersection of today’s journalism and political science. It’s an intersection that, until now, few scholars have seriously looked at.
One of those few is Amanda Wintersieck, assistant professor in the department of political science and public service at UT Chattanooga. She did her dissertation work on fact checking for her PhD at Arizona State.
“My research focuses on how media influences candidates and campaigns,” she says, “specifically how exposure to fact checking can impact voters’ assessment of candidates and their campaign tactics – whether they are useful or not.”
Wintersieck notes that by 2012 fact checking was well-established. “FactCheck.org started in 2003 followed in 2007 by PolitiFact.com, but from an academic standpoint, we are just beginning to explore how misinformation impacts citizens, which is why I got into this area.’”
So where are we at this point?
“Encouragingly, my research shows that citizens are persuaded by evidence presented in fact check so that’s the good news,” she notes. “The bad news is we have this problem of selective exposure. We exist in a digital age where people can tune into only the information that is congruent with their beliefs.”
“Hence, the label fact checking doesn’t carry the weight that it did in 2004 or even in the 2008 election when fact checking was really the purview of political scientists at the (University of Pennsylvania) Annenberg Center.”
She emphasizes that the early fact checkers “had no political interest in being right or wrong but really were just interested in and saw a need for some objective measure of what is truth.”
Now, she muses, in the 2016 election, “everyone claims to be fact checking. Hillary Clinton said, ‘go to my website and look at the fact check tab’ in the debate. What this means is that people can be influenced by fact checking, but what is fact when everybody claims theirs are the only true facts, which is discouraging.”
Wintersieck is concerned that many are deciding what they want to believe first and dismissing anything that doesn’t fit those beliefs as fake news.
“Research has shown that people are motivated by their partisanship,” she says. “We know that partisanship today is more polarizing than ever in the past 30 years, which correlates heavily with our ideology formed through our values and beliefs system. It is natural human instinct to protect those belief systems so we selectively expose ourselves to information that we like.”
She adds that challenging some people over their selectively processed beliefs, even if they are incorrect, may tend to make them cling even more firmly to an incorrect belief. “It is fundamentally cognitive dissonance, and partisanship matters in that regard. Unfortunately, neither the media nor politicians have helped, and certainly the Internet has not helped.”
But is the problem exacerbated in the web when anyone can claim to be a journalist and upload misinformation instead of mainstream media?
“I guess you have to define mainstream media because groups like MSNBC and Fox say they are mainstream in the traditional sense,” Wintersieck replies. “They are examples of starting out in broadcast and moving to the Internet. And we know that the vast majority of individuals who get their news online get it from traditional media sources — instead of picking up their New York Times or going to Fox News television, they are going to New York Times online and to Fox online.”
“We know that there is a partisan nature to those sources now, and it is problematic that you have organizations like Fox and MSNBC that attach a labels such ‘fair and balanced’ as their slogan. I mean, in American history, we know journalism did not start out as objective. We began with unapologetically partisan media in the early 18th century, but people then knew that they were subscribing to their political newspaper.”
She says an added problem is that “even when journalists make unintentional mistakes, errors are not easily corrected. Even if the publication or electronic media issues a correction, many choose to believe the first set of statements and ignore the correction.”
As a political scientist, she acknowledges that she is discomfited with the direction of journalism as it portends for self-governance.
“In political science, we divide citizens into two groups — people who have high levels of political knowledge (experts) and people with low levels of political knowledge (novices),” she explains. “We have found that 25 percent of the population have high levels of political knowledge and 75 percent have low levels. We also know that the experts are information rich and benefit from a wide array news sources while the novices are information poor and go to one or two sources. Also, many lack skills necessary to process relevant civic information from traditional news sources.
“They go to Fox to reinforce their conservative views and MSNBC to reinforce their liberal views. I think Rachel Maddow made a valid observation when she told an interviewer that she could say things in a calm, deliberate manner, ‘but that doesn’t get viewers so I have to say things [in an excited, emotional way] because it now is a commodity where TV news is gathering audiences more from the 75 percent.’ Experts read multiple sources and don’t spend so much time with television news sources.”
She attributes some of the problem to the decline of “childhood socialization to democratic norms in public education that has de-emphasized teaching people how to be good critical, skeptical thinkers and consumers of information.”
She also sees pressures of modern life as contributing to this lack of political knowledge. “A lack of political interest comes with being a single mother working two jobs just to put food on the table. So there’s a lot going on here, and in relation to misinformation, this isn’t easy to solve.”
Wintersieck’s next focus is on further research on fact checking in the 2016 election. “I have a large national sample and part of that experiment that I am excited about is that respondents were allowed to choose where they wanted to receive their fact checking from. So I will actually be able to determine the fact check distributor impact.
“I’m also looking at race and gender right now — the role of feminism’s impact on how voters make decisions. What I think we will see is that many things came to a head in this election; and gender norms and roles are among those issues.”
For example, she notes that even though the women’s march after the inauguration included cities throughout nation and world, Fox News repeatedly portrayed it only in terms of a liberal gathering on the coasts.
“This is a concerning point about the media. I meet people who watch Fox and people watch MSNBC who not only trust those sources, but also see those sources attempting to portray the other media as false –demonizing those who disagree.
“This increases polarization. We know political elites are more polarized than the masses, but the masses are polarizing as well. And part of this is reinforced by the rhetoric that there is no merit in the other side’s position. That is disturbing.”
“And on the left, I have seen movement to say the solution to is to take back state legislatures so that Democrats can gerrymander the districts in their favor. The fact that we are even having this conversation that gerrymandering is the solution is just insane.”
She admits to being dismayed by “the fact that we cannot agree on basic truths, like climate change and the necessity of vaccinations. We can’t even agree that there are some things we can in fact know. I want to be hopeful but seeing the political landscape makes it very difficult to think we will have a solution anytime in the future.”