Podcast: Why Do So Many People Distrust the News?
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Marketing Aug 14, 2017

Pod­cast: Why Do So Many Peo­ple Dis­trust the News?

Plus, how to avoid being duped by fake news yourself.

Wrecking ball destroys news.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research and insights of

David Rapp

Rachel Davis Mersey

Kent Grayson

Listening: Why Do So Many People Distrust the News?

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From net­work broad­casts to the Oval Office to your Face­book feed, it seems that the term fake news” has explod­ed in use over the past year. But while decep­tive or manip­u­la­tive reportage is noth­ing new, the use of the term to mean every­thing from out­right howlers to news that I don’t agree with” is cer­tain­ly note­wor­thy. So, why has fake news become such a thing?

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In this month’s Insight pod­cast, we invite back last month’s guests to take a look at a dif­fer­ent phe­nom­e­non of our cur­rent media cul­ture: fake news. David Rapp, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy at North­west­ern, describes just what makes fake news so sticky.” Rachel Davis Mersey, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at Northwestern’s Medill School, dis­cuss­es what steps reporters can take to increase trust in the news they report. And Kent Grayson, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School, talks about how the dis­trust of the media is an out­growth of a larg­er dis­trust in insti­tu­tions — and what each of us can do to leave our media bubbles.”

Pod­cast Transcript

[music intro]

Jes­si­ca LOVE: Fake news. It’s a con­cept — and a hash­tag — that’s explod­ed over the past year. 

[mon­tage of news clips about fake news]

Fake news” means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. To some, it’s the spread of pur­pose­ly erro­neous sto­ries meant to dupe peo­ple. For oth­ers, includ­ing some politi­cians, it’s a label used to den­i­grate media cov­er­age they don’t agree with. And in yet oth­er con­texts, fake news” is short­hand for a much broad­er anx­i­ety about facts and truth: who gets to decide what’s true, and what hap­pens if we can’t, or don’t want to, agree? 

We’re not going to tack­le all aspects of all of these per­mu­ta­tions of fake news” — that’s too big a task for one pod­cast — but we will take on a few in this episode of the Kel­logg Insight pod­cast. Stay with us. 

[Music Inter­lude]

I’m your host, Jes­si­ca Love. 

The idea to dis­cuss fake news actu­al­ly grew out of inter­views we con­duct­ed for last month’s pod­cast. In that episode, we talked with three pro­fes­sors in dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines about why the mind craves lists as an orga­niz­ing principle. 

And dur­ing those inter­views, the ques­tion of how we know when to trust new infor­ma­tion came up time and time again. So this month we bring all three pro­fes­sors back. And we ask them: Why is fake news such a cul­tur­al con­cern today? 

If you think the Inter­net is to blame, you’re not wrong. But you’re not com­plete­ly right. 

Here’s David Rapp, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy at Northwestern. 

David RAPP: Peo­ple have always been wor­ried about being pre­sent­ed with inac­cu­rate infor­ma­tion. I think the dif­fer­ence between now and pre­vi­ous eras is that there’s just way more of it, and it’s way eas­i­er to access. 

LOVE: In oth­er words, Face­book might make it eas­i­er for false sto­ries about Don­ald Trump win­ning the pop­u­lar vote, or Don­ald Trump rewrit­ing the Bill of Rights, to reach a real­ly wide audi­ence. But false nar­ra­tives have been around as long as humans have. 

So why are we so drawn to them? 

David Rapp says there’s an incred­i­bly sim­ple rea­son why false sto­ries spread: it’s real­ly easy to get peo­ple to state inac­cu­rate things. 

For exam­ple, he’s found that if you ask peo­ple what the cap­i­tal of Rus­sia is, almost all of them will give the right answer: Moscow. 

But let’s say you have the same peo­ple read a sto­ry in which a char­ac­ter says that the cap­i­tal of Rus­sia is St. Peters­burg. After­ward, 20 to 30 per­cent of them will state that the cap­i­tal is indeed St. Petersburg. 

RAPP: And what’s real­ly inter­est­ing is, some oth­er labs have demon­strat­ed that if you ask them lat­er how they learned about it, they say they knew it before­hand. So they’ll tell you St. Peters­burg is the cap­i­tal of Rus­sia and that they knew it before they read this text, which is impos­si­ble because they’ve nev­er actu­al­ly learned that anywhere. 

LOVE: Then there’s the rep­e­ti­tion issue. If we hear some­thing over and over, we remem­ber it bet­ter — even when that some­thing is patent­ly untrue, and we know it is patent­ly untrue. It seems to be human nature to assume that if we can remem­ber some­thing real­ly well, it must be accurate. 

RAPP: So, for exam­ple, when par­tic­u­lar politi­cians will say things that may or may not be true, news pro­grams will repeat those things. They might say explic­it­ly, These aren’t true,” but they’ll repeat them — and repeat­ing them on their own might be a problem. 

LOVE: It’s not just the media that’s guilty of this. Think about the last time you came across a piece of fake news so wrong it was fun­ny — like the recent hoax about great white sharks in the Mis­sis­sip­pi River. 

If you’re like Rapp, you might have felt the urge to share that par­tic­u­lar knee-slap­per with your friends. 

RAPP: I’ll see some­thing pret­ty ridicu­lous I read in the news, and I’ll post it on Face­book because I think it’s fun­ny and I want peo­ple to see it. But if peo­ple read that and post it to oth­er peo­ple who aren’t crit­i­cal­ly eval­u­a­tive or see it over and over again, there can be prob­lem­at­ic consequences. 

LOVE: Mean­ing that repeat­ing fake news — even if we explic­it­ly point out that it’s fake — can ulti­mate­ly spread it to peo­ple who don’t reg­is­ter that it’s fake, either because they’ve seen it again and again in their Face­book feeds, or because they sim­ply want it to be true. 

Of course, we don’t all stum­ble around, con­stant­ly swal­low­ing what­ev­er half-baked sto­ry we come across. So what are the con­di­tions that lead us to ques­tion the accu­ra­cy of what we hear? 

In one of Rapp’s stud­ies, he has two peo­ple work togeth­er to mem­o­rize a list of, say, birds. After the pair has stud­ied the list for a while, they’re asked to take turns remem­ber­ing the items on that list out loud, one at a time, like this: 

STUDY PAR­TIC­I­PANT 1: Pigeon. 

STUDY PAR­TIC­I­PANT 2: Eagle. 

STUDY PAR­TIC­I­PANT 1: Raven. 

STUDY PAR­TIC­I­PANT 2: Owl. 

LOVE: But there’s a catch. One of the par­tic­i­pants has been secret­ly coached ahead of time to occa­sion­al­ly say an item that wasn’t on the list. 

RAPP: So they might say, chick­en,” which nev­er actu­al­ly was in the list. 

LOVE: Then, the true study par­tic­i­pant — the one not feed­ing false answers — is instruct­ed to write down every­thing they remem­ber see­ing in the orig­i­nal list. 

RAPP: And they’ll acci­den­tal­ly report the incor­rect thing that their part­ner said even though they nev­er saw it before, and they’ll report that they actu­al­ly saw that item. 

LOVE: But this effect dis­ap­pears if the par­tic­i­pant thinks that the oth­er per­son isn’t a reli­able source. 

If the guy who says chick­en” seems hes­i­tant and uncer­tain about what he remem­bers, you’re not going to repeat the false claim that chick­en” was on the list of words you mem­o­rized together. 

But in our day-to-day lives, we don’t always get these kinds of clues. Behind a slick web­site, every­one can seem equal­ly con­fi­dent. What we don’t know, Rapp says, is how peo­ple deter­mine whether a news out­let is trustworthy. 

RAPP: I think there needs to be more work look­ing at what hap­pens when peo­ple are sit­ting at their com­put­ers and mak­ing deci­sions, what leads them to decide, I should do a lit­tle extra work to fig­ure out if this source is reli­able or not.” 

LOVE: In the mean­time, he says there’s anoth­er way to pre­vent peo­ple from repeat­ing inac­cu­rate infor­ma­tion: Ask them to active­ly cor­rect it. 

RAPP: We’ve shown in our lab that if you ask peo­ple when they’re read­ing to actu­al­ly proof­read the infor­ma­tion and make cor­rec­tions to the con­tent, they’re less like­ly to use the inac­cu­rate information. 

LOVE: In oth­er words, when we’re put into a sit­u­a­tion where we need to crit­i­cal­ly eval­u­ate what we read, it makes a difference. 

There’s just one prob­lem. When’s the last time you print­ed out an arti­cle from the Inter­net and reviewed it with a red pen­cil in your hand? 

[music inter­lude]

LOVE: Now let’s switch to a dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of fake news,” the one peo­ple use when they dis­trust a par­tic­u­lar media out­let. What can rep­utable jour­nal­ists do to con­vince their audi­ence that they are not, in fact, fake news? 

Rachel Davis MERSEY: One of the great things about being a reporter is, you know a lot. You know a lot about con­text. You’ve thought about things deeply. Espe­cial­ly the best polit­i­cal reporters real­ly can think through con­se­quences in a way that the aver­age cit­i­zen, maybe, doesn’t have the time or lux­u­ry to do. 

LOVE: That’s Rachel Davis Mersey, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at Northwestern’s Medill School. 

She says that jour­nal­ists are, indeed, well posi­tioned to pro­vide accu­rate infor­ma­tion. But at a time when peo­ple are more con­cerned than ever about the spread of mis­in­for­ma­tion, the tra­di­tion­al ways of report­ing and pre­sent­ing news may need to be revisited. 

MERSEY: I’m real­ly implor­ing the news busi­ness to think about trans­paren­cy, to think about how the news is gath­ered, to talk more with audi­ences about how the news is gath­ered, how the news is report­ed, and to engage in more thought­ful sto­ry­telling about all the aspects of a narrative. 

LOVE: One spe­cif­ic place to start: the use of anony­mous sources. And let’s be clear: anony­mous sources can serve a real­ly impor­tant role, pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion that jour­nal­ists can’t get any oth­er way — think of what Deepthroat did to help break the Water­gate sto­ry. But, they still don’t inspire a lot of confidence. 

MERSEY: The audi­ence seems very uncom­fort­able with anony­mous sourc­ing, yet we see great news orga­ni­za­tions ram­pant­ly using it, and sort of using it almost flip­pant­ly. The great exam­ple they used was, Pres­i­dent Trump retreats to the pri­vate res­i­dence and puts on a bathrobe, but he’s all alone.” Well, then, how do you know he’s in a bathrobe? How do you val­i­date anony­mous sources? How does that make some­one feel con­fi­dent about the sto­ry? And then how does that build trust? The truth is, it doesn’t.

LOVE: Audi­ence trust can also take a hit when a media out­let makes an error. Often, it’s not so much about the error itself but the way the out­let han­dles it that does the most damage. 

MERSEY: Mis­takes will hap­pen and mis­takes need to be cor­rect­ed, and they need to be cor­rect­ed in a bold way, not secret­ly on the sec­ond page of the news­pa­per. Peo­ple need to accept respon­si­bil­i­ty for the mistakes. 

LOVE: But even when a news out­let does have a rep­u­ta­tion for being pret­ty trans­par­ent about its sources or its mis­takes, it’s not always easy for audi­ences to tell whether the infor­ma­tion they’re get­ting is actu­al­ly from that outlet. 

Take imposter” or spoof” sites — which are made to look like estab­lished news sites, like CNN or ABC. They might have sim­i­lar names, col­ors, or logos. They may even have sim­i­lar URLs. But they’re actu­al­ly run by some­one else entire­ly. This can be real­ly confusing. 

Even some com­mon prac­tices by legit­i­mate orga­ni­za­tions can leave audi­ences uncer­tain who is behind the infor­ma­tion they find. Like host­ing spon­sored con­tent” where adver­tise­ments resem­ble actu­al articles. 

MERSEY: Just because it’s in The New York Times doesn’t mean it was writ­ten by The New York Times, so it could be adver­tis­ing that blends in. It could be a pro­mo­tion for some­thing else, an affil­i­at­ed prod­uct The New York Times is selling. 

LOVE: Mersey says that spon­sored con­tent real­ly can fool peo­ple. She points to a UPS info­graph­ic that appeared on Fast Com­pa­nys web­site. The ad presents UPS as a solu­tion to the sup­ply-chain chal­lenges fac­ing com­pa­nies. But except for the word adver­tise­ment” print­ed in tiny font at the top of the page, the info­graph­ic looks pret­ty darned indis­tin­guish­able from the rest of the magazine’s content. 

Once peo­ple real­ize they’ve been fooled by ads like these, Mersey says, their con­fi­dence in their abil­i­ty to tell the dif­fer­ence between news and adver­tis­ing — as well as their con­fi­dence in the media — can be gen­uine­ly shaken. 

MERSEY: It does require you to be a much more informed con­sumer of the news than it ever did before. 

[music inter­lude]

Kent GRAYSON: If you look at any study that’s been track­ing trust in insti­tu­tions — and there are quite a few good ones — trust in insti­tu­tions con­tin­ues to decline. 

LOVE: That’s Kent Grayson. Grayson is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School and the direc­tor of The Trust Project, an ini­tia­tive that brings togeth­er dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on trust. 

He says that it’s not just trust in the media that’s declin­ing. Con­fi­dence in all kinds of things — the gov­ern­ment, uni­ver­si­ties, orga­ni­za­tions — has been going down for a while. 

And regard­less of whether a lack of con­fi­dence in any insti­tu­tion is deserved or not, Grayson thinks it can become some­thing of a self-ful­fill­ing prophesy. 

The more skep­ti­cal peo­ple are about an insti­tu­tion like the media, the more close­ly they look at it — and the more they find oth­er rea­sons for skepticism. 

GRAYSON: There could be very much a vicious cycle hap­pen­ing right now. Where insti­tu­tions work best when they are good, and there­fore they are invisible. 

LOVE: When we ful­ly trust our gov­ern­ment or uni­ver­si­ties or media out­lets, we don’t real­ly see” them. They’re invis­i­ble. We don’t think crit­i­cal­ly about how they operate. 

But once the trust starts to go, the scruti­ny begins. We call for more transparency. 

And some­times this does the trick. We cer­tain­ly want our insti­tu­tions to be able to with­stand scrutiny. 

But often, we start to see more and more things we don’t like. Or what one per­son views as a well-func­tion­ing sys­tem, anoth­er per­son views as bro­ken and untrustworthy. 

GRAYSON: Trust in insti­tu­tions is declin­ing much more pre­cip­i­tous­ly amongst peo­ple who are less edu­cat­ed, less afflu­ent, and who are essen­tial­ly the losers in this income gap that we’re see­ing. One rea­son that’s poten­tial­ly prob­lem­at­ic is that those who are mak­ing the deci­sions about the prod­ucts to sell and the reg­u­la­tions to make don’t think there’s a prob­lem with trust in insti­tu­tions as acute­ly as those who are left out. And so deci­sions are being made that might not be addressed at fix­ing the prob­lem and which may even actu­al­ly be mak­ing the prob­lem even worse, with­out real­iz­ing it. 

LOVE: One way to mit­i­gate this gap, he says, is for peo­ple to escape their bias bubbles. 

How might this hap­pen? By using tools like Escape Your Bub­ble, a plug-in that inserts oppos­ing polit­i­cal views into your Face­book feed, or Read Across the Aisle, an app that tracks the polit­i­cal lean­ings of what you read and encour­ages you to explore arti­cles whose points of view you might not agree with. 

He’s opti­mistic about what could happen. 

GRAYSON: Some peo­ple live in the blue bub­ble; some peo­ple live in the red bub­ble. And the idea is that I’m sit­ting in my red bub­ble, and I believe that all the insti­tu­tions that are pro­vid­ing me with the infor­ma­tion that I’m get­ting in my red bub­ble are trust­wor­thy. Same in the blue bub­ble — I believe that all the insti­tu­tions that are pro­vid­ing me with infor­ma­tion are legit­i­mate and they’re trust­wor­thy. I believe that as peo­ple start to see that there are mutu­al­ly incom­pat­i­ble things hap­pen­ing in these two bub­bles, and as they start to real­ize that actu­al­ly some of the infor­ma­tion I’m get­ting in my bub­ble is biased or isn’t right or isn’t true, they’ll start to under­stand that trust in their insti­tu­tion­al guar­an­tors is maybe overblown. 

LOVE: Once enough peo­ple burst their own bias bub­bles, Grayson hopes some of the most polar­iz­ing con­se­quences of this fake news” phe­nom­e­non will subside. 

GRAYSON: It’s real­ly impor­tant to be read­ing more of what’s hap­pen­ing in the oth­er bub­ble than in the bub­ble that I already believe. Why do I need to be reas­sured about that? I already kind of know what I believe. So I’ve changed my read­ing habits. 

Because oth­er­wise we are always going to be in a world where 40 per­cent of the coun­try that thinks that what­ev­er is hap­pen­ing in gov­ern­ment is the worst thing in the world, and anoth­er 40 per­cent thinks it’s awe­some, and nei­ther one of those things can be true all the time. 

[music inter­lude]

LOVE: This pro­gram was pro­duced by Jes­si­ca Love, Fred Schmalz, Emi­ly Stone, and Michael Spikes. It was writ­ten by Anne Ford. 

Spe­cial thanks to our guests, Kent Grayson, Rachel Davis Mersey, and David Rapp. 

You can stream or down­load our month­ly pod­cast from iTunes, Google Play, or our web­site, where you can read more about trust and human behavior. 

You can also read anoth­er arti­cle about fake news, fea­tur­ing Kel­logg pro­fes­sor Adam Waytz, on our site. 

Vis­it us at insight​.kel​logg​.north​west​ern​.edu. We’ll be back next month with anoth­er Kel­logg Insight podcast. 

Featured Faculty

Kent Grayson

Associate Professor of Marketing; Bernice and Leonard Lavin Professorship

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