Breitbart Covered My Psychological Research—Accurately

My bias prepared me for the worst

Craig Harper
May 4, 2018 · 7 min read
Picture by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

I’m a novice academic when it comes to media engagement and promoting my research in the press. I’ve had some of my research announced via press release before, but there had been no takers. So imagine my surprise when my phone flashed with a call from an unknown number last week with a request for more information.

Some context: A week before the call, I received notification from the British Psychological Society that they wanted to send out a press release about a series of studies I’d recently conducted on the topic of fake news. I was due to present it at their Annual Conference, and they thought the media might be interested in the work.

In essence, the research found that liberals and conservatives both believe fake news to a greater extent if it corresponds to their political views, and both try to delegitimize stories that don’t.

No surprises there — but where the research gets interesting is that we found that liberals tend to believe ideology-affirming news stories more as their levels of “collective narcissism” rise. This basically suggests that their feelings of moral superiority in the political sphere drive this behavior.

A similar thing was going on for conservatives. However, their result didn’t reach the arbitrary threshold for “statistical significance,” so we couldn’t confidently assert that the trend was identical. Instead, a tendency to believe gut feelings (so-called “faith in intuition”) drove conservatives’ belief in news stories — irrespective of the content of the stories themselves.

Here is a copy of the press release that was distributed.

Approved press release written with the British Psychological Society

Now that we’ve got the background out of the way, let’s look at what happened when the media covered the studies.

That phone call I mentioned at the beginning of this piece was from a journalist at the Daily Mail.

That’s right — the controversial British newspaper that divides opinion and has the world’s most-read English news website. No big deal…

I returned the call and started to work with the journalist to make sure the findings were communicated clearly and accurately. This set of studies is important to me, and I didn’t want salacious reporting to detract from the (in my opinion) importance of the findings.

I ended the day happy. Contrary to some stereotypes, this journalist took the time to really understand the research, run copy past me, and make sure I was comfortable with the depiction of my work.

I woke up on Tuesday eager to see the article online. Cue a twinge of disappointment.

As soon as I saw the headline, I knew that the journalist’s hard work had been undone by subeditors with specific political slant they wanted to put on the story.

Instead of a balanced and nuanced discussion of the findings, the editorial of the newspaper was laid bare. Left-wingers were collectively narcissistic, and they try to assert their sense of moral superiority by both lying in the news and disbelieving stories that are framed counter to their worldviews. Conservatives, in contrast, might just believe some news stories more if they believe in their instincts.

The print version was even worse. “Lefties fall for fake news because they’re self-righteous” was the gist of the story displayed in the column next to a big picture of Jeremy Clarkson. Not only did this showcase the editorial position of the paper itself, but it totally got the research wrong by taking results from two separate studies and presenting them as a single piece of work.

Let’s move on.

Daily Mail disappointment aside, I was still pleased that people were discussing my work. My inbox was full of friends and family saying how exciting it was to see my name in the paper. They didn’t know it was misrepresented, but who has the time to discuss statistical nuance with family members who couldn’t care less for p values and confidence intervals?

Over a coffee break I received a text from the conference press office. The local radio station wanted to grill me on the research.

By “grill,” I really mean: Throw me a couple of questions that let me get the main points across, throw in a reference to Brexit, and get me off the air quick as possible so they can get back to playing a catchy pop song from the ’90s that we’d all forgotten about.

We set a time for the interview to take place on the phone (the very specific 4:37 p.m., to be precise). Here’s the clip from my almost four minutes of local celebrity status.

Straightforward stuff, I think you’ll agree. Nothing too taxing, and I enjoyed being able to get the results of the study across in my own words (damn those subeditors…).

What surprised me was the nature of local news. I was expecting a friendly, slow process: chatting with the producer, maybe some kind of debrief after the interview.

No. I sat in the empty room at the BPS press office, at a single table, waiting for the phone to ring. As it did, the producer confirmed it was me, and bang — there I was listening to the last 45 seconds of Kylie Minogue’s latest single (a real earworm, as I’ve found out in the past 48 hours). Four minutes later, interview done, the producer came back onto the line.

“Great, thanks. Bye.” And then she was gone.

I thought that was it. The conference was over, there were no new media requests the following day, and it seemed my moment of pseudo-fame had passed. Then I received the following email.

Breitbart. Oh no… I clicked the link.

Speechless. Not only had one of the most notorious news sites in the world covered my already highly-politicized research, but they had actually done the work justice. Sure, they used quite the ideologically-editorialized headline, but the content was great! I struggled to see how I would describe the research any differently.

I looked back at the email, and then considered my own reaction to it.

The content supported the research findings perfectly. This individual had seen the Breitbart story, referenced the source of it, and automatically assumed it was, you guessed it, fake news:

I do not know if the study actually exists or if they have fabricated the whole thing, which is my suspicion.

Then I thought about my response. As soon as I saw the publication, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. If the Daily Mail had editorialized the study, what the hell would Breitbart do with it?!

This was the very essence of prejudice. I’m not a fan of Breitbart, and I disagree with 99% of the ideological content I see on the site (the only piece I’ve been sympathetic to is this piece of cultural authoritarianism), but in this case, their reporting was great.

It just goes to show that perceptions of media legitimacy really are related to the reader’s political views — even if that reader is the so-called expert!

In all, this has been a really positive first foray into media engagement. Not only have I been able to make new contacts in the various press offices I’ve worked with, but it’s opened my eyes to the world of scientific communication in the mass media.

  • Takeaway 1: Journalists are not out to get you (it’s their editors you need to worry about…)
  • Takeaway 2: Be prepared for brief interactions (particularly where you’re speaking live with small media outlets)
  • Takeaway 3: Your friends in science communication can be found in strange places. (Okay… let’s not go as far as “friends” when it comes to Breitbart — but you catch my drift.)

As an academic, it’s refreshing to see science being communicated well. That said, even when it isn’t, it’s been eye-opening to see how bias creeps into the publication process.

I would encourage other academics to engage with the media. By doing so, the connections you make, the freedom you have to communicate your findings, and the knowledge you gain all take you outside the academic bubble.

We do research (typically) using taxpayer money — the least we can do is tell them about it!

Craig Harper Essays

Essays by Dr. Craig Harper

Craig Harper

Written by

Social psychologist and researcher interested in sexuality and political issues. Posts about psychology, science, and education. Twitter: @CraigHarper19

Craig Harper Essays

Evidence-based and science-supported commentary on politics and psychology. Written by Dr. Craig Harper

Craig Harper

Written by

Social psychologist and researcher interested in sexuality and political issues. Posts about psychology, science, and education. Twitter: @CraigHarper19

Craig Harper Essays

Evidence-based and science-supported commentary on politics and psychology. Written by Dr. Craig Harper

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