The effects of subtle misinformation in news headlines

Ullrich K H Ecker*, Stephan Lewandowsky, Ee Pin Chang, Rekha Pillai

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

78 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Information presented in news articles can be misleading without being blatantly false. Experiment 1 examined the effects of misleading headlines that emphasize secondary content rather than the article's primary gist. We investigated how headlines affect readers' processing of factual news articles and opinion pieces, using both direct memory measures and more indirect reasoning measures. Experiment 2 examined an even more subtle type of misdirection. We presented articles featuring a facial image of one of the protagonists, and examined whether the headline and opening paragraph of an article affected the impressions formed of that face even when the person referred to in the headline was not the person portrayed. We demonstrate that misleading headlines affect readers' memory, their inferential reasoning and behavioral intentions, as well as the impressions people form of faces. On a theoretical level, we argue that these effects arise not only because headlines constrain further information processing, biasing readers toward a specific interpretation, but also because readers struggle to update their memory in order to correct initial misconceptions. Practical implications for news consumers and media literacy are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)323-335
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
Volume20
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Structured keywords

  • Memory

Keywords

  • Facial impressions
  • Inferential reasoning
  • Memory updating
  • News communication
  • Reading comprehension

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