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If the Liberals are concerned about misinformation poisoning the electorate, they might want to start cleaning up their own house.
A study released last week by the Digital Democracy Project, a joint venture between the Public Policy Forum and McGill’s public policy school, might cause journalists to wonder why they even bother getting up in the morning. Among its dispiriting findings: “It appears that simply consuming news, regardless of source, makes people susceptible to being misinformed about the issues.”
Brilliant. For all our self-important, pillar-of-democracy pontificating, we’re not just failing to educate people who are confidently and frequently wrong about the issues of the day; the study suggests we might even be helping to create such people. This led Canadaland’s Jesse Brown, the country’s most confidently and frequently wrong media critic, to declare that Canada doesn’t have a “fake news problem,” but rather a “shitty news problem.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s not that simple.
The study asked 1,000 participants eight factual questions about Canadian affairs. Respondents were the most well informed on the question of whether Canada admits more or fewer refugees per capita than the United States (59 per cent correctly said more, 15 per cent said fewer, 26 per cent weren’t sure). They were most poorly informed on whether Canada’s carbon emissions were higher or lower in 2018 than in 2015 (20 per cent correctly said lower, 39 per cent said higher, 41 per cent weren’t sure). And they were the least sure about whether a two-child family pulling in $50,000 got more money from the feds in 2018 or 2015 (47 per cent weren’t sure, 38 per cent correctly said more, 15 per cent incorrectly said less).
The good news for journalism: Respondents claiming high exposure to traditional media gave one-third more correct answers than those claiming low exposure. The bad news: They also gave almost twice as many incorrect answers. The number of “net correct” answers — right minus wrong — was 1.6 for those who don’t watch or read much news, and 1.4 for those who do. High exposure to social media seemed to have an even more corrosive effect on accurate knowledge, as you would expect. But the journalism establishment likes to see itself as the antidote to the crap winging around Facebook and Twitter, not as a lesser offender.
There are certainly lessons for media to learn from research like this. For one thing, it seems to validate the move many outlets have made toward deliberate, careful fact-checking of political actors. While many bemoan living in a “post-truth era,” American research published earlier this year by Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, found “journalistic fact-checks can overcome directionally motivated reasoning and bring people’s beliefs more in line with the facts.” That’s encouraging — and every survey shows Canadians trust legacy media far more than Americans do.
The Canadian study’s findings on climate change were particularly notable. Respondents were relatively well-informed on the question of Canada’s Paris Accord targets: 44 per cent correctly said we are not “on track to meet (them),” while just 19 per cent said we were. Yet 39 per cent incorrectly believed emissions were higher in 2018 than in 2015. The way news traditionally gets packaged — “Canada still falling short of Paris targets,” for example — might inadvertently foster that false impression. That’s worth thinking about.
That said, it’s tough to argue media have botched reporting on some of the other basic factual questions some people struggled with: the size of the federal budget deficit; GDP growth under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first term in office relative to Stephen Harper’s last; the unemployment rate in 2018 relative to 2015. There are many complex reasons our brains process some pellets of information properly, edit some before they go into storage, and reject others entirely.
One big obvious reason is partisanship — and that, not media exposure, seems to be the most inflammatory factor at play in the study. Non-partisans with high exposure to traditional media gave roughly 50 per cent more wrong answers than those with low exposure. “Strong partisans” gave almost twice as many.
Thus, a government concerned about misinformation poisoning the electorate might want to ensure that its own house, at least, is spic and span. Regretfully, the Liberals do not walk the talk on this front. To pick just one notable item: If Red Team partisans were asked whether health-care transfers to the provinces increased or decreased under Harper’s watch, and if they incorrectly answered that he froze or cut them, that might partly be because prominent party officials constantly, deliberately mislead people about it.
Another thing a government that’s ostensibly concerned about media credibility might do is not give struggling legacy newspapers hundreds of millions of public dollars. A large percentage of Canadian partisans of all stripes are already convinced the Canadian media are monolithically arrayed against them; put us on the dole and it will only get worse. Alas, the Liberals have been given the right answer on that question far too many times at this point to think they won’t settle on the wrong one.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019