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Memory, Media, and the News

Does exaggerated news coverage distort our memory for details?

Remember President Obama's 2010 visit to India? After an anonymous source in the Indian government allegedly reported that the visit would cost $200 million dollars a day, all hell broke loose. At least with the conservative news media. In a November 2010 broadcast, Rush Limbaugh reported that the Presidential visit would cost, "Five hundred seven rooms at the Taj Mahal, 40 airplanes, $200 million a day this nation will spend on Obama’s trip to India.”

Except for the fact that there was absolutely no truth to the story. While the costs of the visit were no greater than what other presidents had spent on similar international visits in the past, attempts to set the story straight tended to be overlooked. When exaggerated news stories get reported, they seem far more likely to be remembered than the more restrained reporting that tries to be more balanced.  

For better or worse, roughly two-thirds of Americans report that television represents their primary source of information about international and national news stories. An additional 31 percent report that they get their information from newspapers. Despite this reliance we all seem to have on both types of media, there has also been a widespread rise in skepticism over how accurate these news stories are.  

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In 2011, the Pew Research Center reported that negative opinions about the independence, accuracy, bias, and impartiality of most news organization have reached an all-time high. While information from news organizations is still regarded with more trust than government and business sources, many news stories are often greeted with skepticism. A mind-boggling 66 percent of people surveyed reported that news stories were often inaccurate while 77 percent said they were partisan, and 80 percent said they were subject to outside influence. The declining trust in the news media that most people report seems to be linked to a perception that news stories are often exaggerated in order to promote a given viewpoint. This perception is reinforced by the accusations of bias frequently leveled against conservative news agencies by more liberal media outlets (and vice versa).  

A new study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture examined the relationhip between sensational news stories and how they affected memory for news details. Victoria J. Lawson and Deryn Strange of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York examined the often insidious effect that exaggerated media reports have on what people later remembered about the story, even if they were skeptical. That also included the impact that providing images—both photographs and videos—often have in reinforcing the memory of specific story details. In many cases, exaggerated news stories and the graphic images that go with them can lead to the development of false memories that shape public opinion far more than the more moderate news coverage intended to "set things straight."

A secondary goal of the researchers in this study was to see if there were ways of correcting the  false beliefs created by inaccurate news stories. While initial skepticism can prevent misconceptions from forming in the first place, long-term memories tend not to depend on how skeptical people may be about whether a news story is accurate. In other words, people may remember the details of an inaccurate news story without recalling that that they were skeptical about it in the first place. They are also more likely to remember sensational news stories than more neutral reports which are forgotten.

In the study, 84 undergraduates took part in an experiment testing recall of two news stories - one involving a home invasion and the other involving a school fire. Both news stories were genuine but different versions of the stories were presented to compare whether subjects were more likely to remember important details for sensational vs. balanced reporting. The distortions in the story involved inaccurate information and more extreme details. How the two versions were presented was carefully counterbalanced (for example, the sensational version was presented as a newspaper story and the standard version by television or vice versa). The television news stories were created using a paid actor simulating an actual news broadcast.

As part of the study, some of the subjects also received a special warning prior to being presented with the news story (“Please remember that the news media sometimes takes liberties with the facts surrounding events in order to create a better story. Therefore, be aware that not all of the information you receive may be entirely accurate.”) The purpose of the warning was to see if people being warned of potentially inaccurate stories would be more skeptical of what they were seeing. Twenty minutes after seeing both story versions, the subjects then completed questionnaires including a memory test made up of 32 statements about the news stories.  

For each statement, they were asked about the story's accuracy, whether it was a print or a television story, and how confident they were about their story recall. The statements were keyed to whether they came from the standard story or the exaggerated version to test recall. Some of the statements provided were "lures" which came from similar news stories but contained details that weren't found in the actual story presented to them.  

Overall, the subjects in the study were more likely to recall details from stories they read rather than saw on television. Exaggerated stories were also less likely to be trusted than standard news stories and exaggerated news stories were also more likely to be associated with memory distortions (the "lure" statements were more likely to be considered true). Newspaper stories were also rated as being more trustworthy than television news, regardless of whether the stories were exaggerated or standard. Surprisingly, warning about potential inaccuracy had no effect on recall.   

In general, the subjects in the study were reasonably good at detecting "lure" statements with information not found in the news statements - but more for the standard than the exaggerated stories. Still, they were less accurate when it came to source monitoring (recalling whether the story was presented in print or on television). Being skeptical over whether a story was true also seemed not to predict memory accuracy since lurid details from exaggerated stories were more likely to be remembered.  

So what does all this mean? Since skepticism or even a general warning about story accuracy doesn't prevent exaggerated news stories from being retained in memory, this research highlights some of the dangers involved in sensational news reporting. The danger is even greater when exaggerated or completely fabricated stories are accompanied by photographs or videos that can lead to false memories of news stories that never actually happened. As more and more people get their news from the Internet with curated news stories amalgamated from multiple sources, being able to weigh the accuracy of specific stories has become harder than ever.  

It is likely not surprising that bogus news stories from sites such as The Onion and the Daily Currant are often mistaken for the real thing, usually on the grounds that the story seems plausible enough. As these stories become stored in memory, our ability to separate fact from fiction and to recognize the difference between reputable news sources and shock-and-awe tabloids can often seem hopeless.  

The best alternative is to learn to become more intelligent news consumers through better education to inoculate ourselves from the negative impact of exaggerated news stories. So the next time you see a news story that seems too good to be true, do your own fact-checking before accepting it at face value.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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