‘Truth tests’ might have unintended effect with voters

In this highly charged political season, truth is “in the eye of the beholder,” muddying efforts by journalists to fact-check candidates’ claims, a media expert told the Christian Science Monitor in its Thursday edition.

So-called truth tests, widely conducted by newspapers, TV news broadcasts and web sites, are a “growth industry,” CSM reporter Linda Feldman writes, but their effect on voters is unclear.

“To some extent, it’s in the eye of the beholder,” says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Facts derive their meaning from the context in which viewers see them.”

In other words, some people are going to care deeply that, for example, Governor Palin is making questionable or untrue assertions about her record and others won’t. “It depends on your view of Sarah Palin,” says Mr. Rosenstiel.

Coverage has increasingly focused on the truthfulness — or its opposite — of the campaign since Alaska Gov Sarah Palin was named to the Republican ticket and began repeating a widely debunked statement she “stopped the Bridge to Nowhere,” and the McCain camp repeated the claim in ads. But, depending whether voters already support Palin, pointing out her fabrications might not matter.

A recent Gallup poll shows that the public’s view of media coverage of Palin depends greatly on partisan affiliation. A majority of Republicans — 54 percent — say the coverage has been unfairly negative, while only 29 percent of independents and 18 percent of Democrats feel that way. So it is through that filter that voters will assess fact-checking. And it may well be that the wave of columns and editorials in the mainstream press expressing outrage over McCain’s statements and ads about Obama will serve mainly to satisfy McCain’s opponents, while doing little to change the minds of his supporters. How undecided voters and “soft leaners” — those not firmly in one camp or the other — are affected remains unclear.

Feldman unearths a study that might give media fact-checkers pause. Apparently, voters might not only dismiss corrections but actually dig their heels in the face of them:

Other research indicates that attempts to correct misinformation are unlikely to change minds. In an experiment by two academics, volunteers were given a mock news article with potentially misleading information — half with a correction, half without. The researchers discovered that the group that received the correction may end up believing the misleading information more strongly after hearing the correction.

But there’s no sign journalists plan to take their arbiter role down a notch. Quite the contrary, according to Rosentiel, who says, “the press has moved from being a color commentator in the booth to at least at times being a referee on the field.”

h/t Romenesko