Fighting fake news with emotion

Dear journalist,

A thief broke into my neighbor’s garage, opened the car and took anything portable. The neighbor let my wife know. My wife connected the break-in with thefts in another neighborhood.

Startled girl

She became afraid, even though we live in a pretty safe neighborhood.

She has her 100,000-year-old brain to thank for her fear.

Psychologists for decades have described different systems of thought. One is newer, more rational and reasoned, more deliberate and evidence-based. It is Reason, as Dan Gardner describes in his book “The Science of Fear.”

The other, Feeling, is that ancient brain. It’s “as fast as lightning,” Gardner writes, the system that relies on some example or other in our brains to trigger emotion. It helped our ancestors avoid being eaten.

The old brain causes us to ignore and deny even the steadiest set of facts.

Feeling trumps Reason.

Go figure: There is a landfill worth of facts that confirm that, yes indeed, Barack Obama was born in the U.S. of A. Logically, the debate has been over for years. Yet five of the top six articles listed on my Google search “Obama birth certificate” had headlines from the past six months still asserting a conspiracy. It defies Reason.

In an extraordinary series of editorials this month, the Los Angeles Times described how President Trump, a king of distortions and conspiracy theories, uses fear to his advantage:

“Though he is neither terribly articulate nor a seasoned politician, he has a remarkable instinct for discerning which conspiracy theories in which quasi-news source, or which of his own inner musings, will turn into ratings gold. He targets the darkness, anger and insecurity that hide in each of us and harnesses them for his own purposes.”

What’s a fact-based industry supposed to do?

Individuals and organizations that understand the risk to democracy in a world without shared facts are working on answers. Example: In a call for prototypes last month, the Knight Foundation wrote this as a central question: “How might we improve the flow of accurate information?”

Sounds like a good goal. I hope it produces some cool ideas. But there’s information everywhere, much of it on the accurate side of the equation, despite the pandemic of news about fake news.

Perhaps the better question is: How might we improve the flow of emotion so people might be more amenable to facts?

Shocked girl

We’ve tried to turn the tide of distrust of the press. It hasn’t worked. The decline in trust predates Twitter. And Facebook. And even the introduction of the internet.

A whopping 32 percent of Americans have confidence in the “mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly,” according to the latest Gallup poll. In 1976, 72 percent believed in that statement.

My first job out of J-school was in 1985. The newsroom was fretting about the loss of trust then, too.

There has to be something going on that’s more than the digital revolution. This was an ink and paper problem.

The way our brains tap into news has something to do with it.

Consider Shankar Vedantam’s interview with a cognitive neuroscientist last month on his podcast “The Hidden Brain.” The scientist, Tali Sharot, described what we’ve seen from our politicians and in our common lives: The more firmly held the belief, the less likely a person is to accept any contrary facts.

More information isn’t better. It’s just more.

“Data is not enough,” Sharot said. “And even if the data is based on very good science, it has to be communicated in a way that will really tap into people’s needs, their desires.”

It works all ways. So, if you believe in climate change, you’ll reject statistics that run counter to that belief, Sharot found. And vice versa.

Here’s another point Sharot makes that’s worth noting: Fear, which triggers that 100,000-year-old brain, works best in getting people not to do something. “For example, if you try to get someone not to vaccinate their kids, fear may work,” she said. “If there is, you know, an apple that looks bad, I don’t eat it.”

An old boss of mine liked to use the phrase “facts to fight the fear” when he talked about our obligations. He should have said: facts and a little emotion.

Recall the impact of a single photo of a dead 3-year-old in 2015. Here’s how NPR described it at the time:

“The numbers associated with today’s migration crisis are huge: 4 million Syrians fleeing their country; 3 million Iraqis displaced. But it was the image of a solitary child — a toddler in a red T-shirt, blue shorts and Velcro sneakers, found face-down on a Turkish beach — that shocked and haunted the world this week.”

Anxious girl

Journalists have known the power of emotion for a long time. The best of journalism taps into it through powerful stories of humanity or through deep investigations that produce outrage or wonder.

That’s not most journalism.

We have, for the most part, stuck to our ways, keeping our distance from the public we served, reporting the news in clinical ways that were heavy on facts per column inch but lacking in meaning per inch.

We need to acknowledge that information alone won’t succeed in the fight against fake news. We need to build more intimate relationships with our readers, listeners and viewers. We need to tap into emotion while at the same time retaining our purpose and values.

How do we get there?

MOSQUITO KILLS IOWA WOMAN kinds of headlines are cheap ways, but not sustaining and not consistent with our mission to give people the best available version of the truth at the time.

The first step will be for journalists to understand more deeply the power of emotion on intellect and to engage people, also known as readers/listeners/viewers/experiencers/customers/consumers — citizens, on different levels.



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