The Danger of Impartial Reporting

Conclusions we come up with ourselves lodge themselves more firmly in our minds—even if they're wrong.
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Editor's Note: A version of this story first appeared on PSmag.com on September 1, 2015, with the headline "The Unique Danger of Implied Misinformation." This edited version was published in our January/February 2016 print issue.

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(Photo: iStockPhoto)

(Photo: iStockPhoto)

News audiences, we are led to believe, want just the facts. But careful, here’s-what-we- know-now journalism—in which key facts are uncertain, leaving readers to connect the dots— may have consequences. Kent State University psychologists conducted a series of studies in which participants read a report about a residential theft. One version fingered the homeowner’s son, while another simply noted he was paying off “gambling debts.” Those who read the account insinuating his involvement were more likely to assume guilt. As the researchers write, conclusions we come up with ourselves lodge themselves more firmly in our minds, making them particularly difficult to eradicate. It seems the mental effort it takes to put one and one together can create gut-level beliefs that are hard to shake—even when the answer we come up with is three.

—“The Continued Influence of Implied and Explicitly Stated Misinformation in News Reports,” Patrick R. Rich and Maria S. Zaragoza, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 2015.

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