Americans Trust Headlines That Match Their Political Leanings

Would people believe a news story is accurate if it is published by a source that shares their worldview? Or would they believe claims that agree with their views, regardless of where they are published?

A new report by Associate Professor Mor Naaman and colleagues at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech shows that Americans are more likely to believe that a news story is accurate if the headline aligns with their political views — and that it does not matter whether the headline comes from a source that aligns with the reader’s views.

For instance, a left-leaning reader who sees the headline “Trump lashes out at Vanity Fair, one day after it lambastes his restaurant,” is more likely than a right-leaning person to rate the headline true. For both these readers, it doesn’t matter whether the headline appears on Fox News or The New York Times, the researchers discovered.

The results provide insight and nuance to the important question of trust in news, the researchers suggest. “On the bright side,” Naaman said, “the source of news might be less polarizing than previously thought. On the negative side, though, the experiment shows that people are likely to reject disagreeable information, even if they trust its source.”

Naaman and his colleague Maurice Jakesch of Cornell Tech, Moran Koren of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Anna Evtushenko of Cornell University presented their findings at the 2019 Computation + Journalism Symposium.

After an online experiment conducted with 400 Americans, the researchers concluded that “participants overwhelmingly report believing headlines that align with their political views, regardless of the source of the report.”

They also found strong evidence that those participating in the experiment were not always truthful about how they evaluated the headlines. “For example, right-leaning readers would often say a left-leaning headline is false, even when they believe it is true,” they note.

When some of the participants were offered a small payment for “correctly” answering whether the headlines were true or false, they were less likely to respond in ways that aligned with their political leanings. The researchers found that right-leaning participants in particular rated more of the left-leaning headlines as true when they were offered the payment option.

Maurice Jakesch, the lead author on the study and a Ph.D. student at Cornell Tech, said: “While we do not expect Facebook to start handing out money for people’s evaluation of headlines, these results suggest the potential for incentives that may change people’s behavior regarding evaluating and maybe even sharing of misinformation and fake news.”

A 2018 survey by the Gallup and Knight Foundation concluded that Americans perceive news articles as biased (62 percent of news stories) or inaccurate (44 percent of stories) depending on whether they believe the news outlet shares their political affiliation.

But Naaman and colleagues suggest that this survey and other recent studies on the phenomenon did not dig deep enough, to find out whether individuals might be influenced by the political nature of the claims published in the news stories themselves.

To remedy this, the researchers recruited 400 people through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing platform for surveys and other tasks. The participants were shown a set of left-leaning, right-leaning and non-political headlines assigned randomly to either Fox News or The New York Times, and asked to evaluate whether the headlines were true or false. The researchers then asked the participants a series of questions to determine their political affiliation.

The researchers say the results of their experiment are preliminary, and should be expanded in the future with more headlines, more news sources and a larger and more diverse group of participants.

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