The number of fact-checking stories produced by journalists has increased dramatically in recent years, but could those stories be better at countering misinformation?

Scholars and journalists have begun to explore the characteristics that improve fact-checking’s success in helping readers understand and accept factual information. My recent study, supported by the American Press Institute, examines how readers’ trust in journalists and sources might influence the effectiveness of fact-checking stories. The study examined two methods that journalists might use to increase the credibility of fact checks: (1) Increasing consumer trust in the news story itself by including a photo of the journalist, and (2) using representatives from institutions that readers already trust as sources of facts and information in the story.

Findings indicate that readers are more likely to accurately recall the facts of a story if it cites sources trusted by the reader; and that they were no more likely to recall accurate information after reading a story included a photo of the writer.

Through this study, we also uncovered some interesting information about how people define “journalist” and “the news media.” Here’s how they responded when asked who they considered to be a journalist:

  • 83 percent considered those working for print newspapers and broadcast programs on television networks as journalists.
  • 34 percent said pundits or those who write for op-ed pages are journalists.
  • 30 percent considered people who write for blogs/websites not associated with print or major broadcast programs are journalists.
  • 23 percent said people who post on social media platforms (again, not associated with major outlets) are journalists.

When asked to define the “news media,” 66 percent cited news programs on television networks. Other answers were:

  • 34 percent: traditional print sources
  • 10 percent: websites or blogs not run by print sources or networks
  • 10 percent: social media posts
  • 9 percent: comedy programs
  • 8 percent: programs aired on social media channels, such as YouTube

This research was commissioned by API’s Accountability Journalism Project, an initiative to increase and improve fact-checking journalism through research and training. The program is currently funded by the Democracy Fund.

How the survey was conducted

As part of a nationally representative survey, I created a fact-checking story challenging misinformation about immigration believed by a substantial segment of the American public. The story said the belief that illegal immigration rates from Mexico had been increasing is inaccurate. Then, accurate information was provided.

Sources cited in the survey’s news stories varied. Information was attributed to representatives of one of three groups: corporations, government agencies or academic research institutions. Half of the stories attributing information to these groups included a photo of the writer, half did not. Here’s an example of a fact-checking story citing corporate sources:


Fact Check: Popular Attitudes about Illegal Immigration

By Joshua Johnson, The Washington Post Gazette

© January 3, 2017

Many Americans associate immigration with Mexican citizens entering the United States illegally. A recent Pew Research Center survey asked Americans what word came to mind when they thought about immigration. The most common answer: “illegal.” And despite evidence to the contrary, many Americans believe that illegal immigration from Mexico continues to rise.

At a recent meeting in Phoenix to discuss potential immigration reforms, representatives from a number of major corporations addressed common misperceptions about immigration. According to John Smith, an executive at ConAgra, we “have a very good understanding of illegal immigrants’ countries of origin. While people from Mexico made up 52% of all unauthorized immigrants in 2014, their numbers have declined in recent years. 5.8 million Mexican unauthorized immigrants were living in the U.S. in 2014, a decrease of more than half a million people from 2009.” Smith is working to reform the US immigration system, and come up with a workable way to deal with those here illegally. A representative for Intel reiterated Smith’s point saying that “as the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico decreased, the number from nations other than Mexico grew to an estimated 5.3 million in 2014. Most of this growth came from unauthorized immigrants from Asia and Central America, in addition to sub-Saharan Africa.”

So what accounts for Americans’ continued belief that illegal immigration from Mexico has increased, despite facts to the contrary? Those attending this meeting in Phoenix believe that false claims made by politicians, activists, and bloggers underlie continued public mispercpetions. Cassidy Winthrop of Facebook contends “it would be so much more productive if we could move past misguided beliefs about immigrants and begin a real discussion about how to reform a US immigration system that members of both parties agree isn’t working.” Winthrop’s colleague, Jared Daniels, echoed her sentiment. “I wish people understood the positive economic consequences of immigration. There are thousands of engineering jobs sitting vacant that highly skilled immigrants could fill,” he said. “If we could correct some of the mistaken beliefs that Americans hold, I think we would be much further along in developing policies that would address problems in our immigration system. And that would benefit all of us.”


After reading the story, participants in the study answered questions about immigration. Specifically, they identified whether the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico had increased, decreased, or stayed the same over the past decade.

The study found that people who read any version of the fact-checking story were more likely to correctly answer that illegal immigration from Mexico had decreased than people who read a news story on an unrelated topic.

And, trust in the institution associated with the sources cited in the story influenced the effectiveness of the fact check. For instance, readers with higher levels of trust in corporations were more likely to know actual illegal immigration levels when they read a story citing corporate spokespersons. Readers with higher levels of trust in government agencies were more to answer correctly when they read a story citing representatives of these agencies. And readers with higher levels of trust in academic research institutions were more likely to know the actual illegal immigration levels when they read a story citing academic researchers.

While citing a trusted source increased a story’s effectiveness, including a photo of the author did not. People reading a version of the story with a photo of the writer were no more likely to accurately identify immigration levels than those reading a version without a photo.

Next steps

This study suggests that journalists may be able to tailor the content of their fact-checking stories to make them more persuasive to readers, even on hot button and highly partisan political issues such as illegal immigration.  

Clearly, though, journalists first need to know and understand their audiences. Companies can conduct online surveys of readers quickly, and at a relatively low cost. Who or what type of sources do readers trust? Knowing the answers to that question could potentially allow reporters to use those sources in their fact-checks and possibly increase the fact-check’s impact.

Communication and political science research indicates the difficulty of convincing people to accept fact-checks that counter misinformation. While journalists face substantial hurdles as they work to counter such misinformation, relying on sources that readers trust may provide journalists a valuable tool in combatting it.  

The full study will be available in September.

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