America the Clueless or America the Context-less?

A practical, contextual approach to reporting on complex issues

The contextual fact-check mockup used by researcher Emily Thorson. Her experiment shows that presenting information in this way can help correct common misperceptions about complex public policy issues.

“America the clueless,” quipped the headline of an opinion piece by The New York Times’ Frank Bruni in 2013. In the piece, Bruni cites statistic after statistic showing how much Americans get wrong about the political world. He laments that “[T]he truth is that a great big chunk of the [American] electorate is tuned out, zonked out, or combing Roswell for alien remains.

My own research shows that misperceptions about public policy are widespread — even regarding issues that Americans care deeply about. For example, while many Americans express serious concern over the national debt, two-thirds mistakenly believe China owns at least half of the U.S. national debt. In reality, it owns about eight percent. Sixty-two percent believe that interest on the national debt is more than half the federal budget. These misperceptions are common among both Democrats and Republicans.

It’s not unusual for both pundits and academics to be hard on ordinary Americans. Americans don’t know things because they can’t be bothered to know them, the conventional wisdom says.

But what if a lack of motivation is not the whole story? What people do want to understand public policy, but lack the time or the specialized skills required to dig up the basic facts about complex issues? Americans describe the modern news environment as both complicated and confusing. Seven in 10 say the amount of news available today is “overwhelming,” while 40 percent report that news about the economy makes them feel confused.

Americans don’t know things because they can’t be bothered to know them, the conventional wisdom says….But what if a lack of motivation is not the whole story? What people do want to understand public policy, but lack the time or the specialized skills required to dig up the basic facts about complex issues?

Does the news actually give people the basic facts they want to know about issues? To answer this question, I first conducted interviews with everyday Americans, asking them what about the national debt concerned them the most and what aspects of it they wanted the news to cover. In these interviews, participants frequently brought up size of the debt and the extent of foreign ownership. Next, I examined how the news media has covered the issue of the national debt. Specifically, I analyzed both print and television news to determine whether news coverage of the debt answered three basic questions: Is it increasing or decreasing? How much is it? And to whom is it owed?

The results showed that the media gave readers and viewers very little of the basic contextual information required for understanding the issue of the national debt. For example, less than one percent of broadcast news coverage and less than six percent of print news coverage of the national debt had any mention of to whom the national debt was owed. Both print and broadcast news also rarely mentioned the total amount of the debt. The results showed that there is a fundamental mismatch between what people want to know about the issue and what information news coverage actually provides.

Could providing more background information increase knowledge? Would people actually bother reading it, and could they learn from it? To test this, I conducted an experiment. Participants were randomly assigned into three groups, and each group read a brief news article, ostensibly from the USA Today. The first group read an article about President Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal, including his claims that it would reduce the national debt. The second group read the same story, but their story also included a box with basic background information about the national debt, including the amount, to whom it was owed, and the amount of interest the U.S pays. A third group read a nonpolitical article about grizzly bears.

The results … show that contextual fact-checks can be remarkably successful in correcting misperceptions. In addition, compared to fact-checks of politicians and candidates, they run a smaller risk of creating a partisan backlash.

After reading the article, I asked participants to answer two factual questions. The first asked whether China owned more or less than half the national debt, and the second asked whether interest on the national debt was more or less than half the national budget. They were also asked to evaluate the specific article as well as the USA Today more generally.

The results were promising. Seventy percent of people who read the version of the article on the budget without the background information said they thought interest on the national debt was more than half the national budget, and 60 percent said they believed China owned more than half of the U.S. national debt. But among those people who read the version of the budget article with the contextual information, just 41 percent incorrectly believed that interest was over half the budget, and 43 percent said they thought China owned the majority of the debt.

Giving people the background information they need to understand complex issues can be an effective way of informing the public. However, fact-checking comes with risks. In the abstract, news consumers have a positive view of the goals of fact-checking. But in practice, when a news organization fact-checks someone of a reader’s own party, he is likely to rate that news organization as more biased. This paradox illustrates the challenge of fact-checking: Readers profess to want it, but dislike it when the fact-check paints their own side in a negative light.

However, fact-checking issues does not seem to produce the same backlash as fact-checking politicians. In the experiment, the inclusion of the fact-check did not lead readers to evaluate either the article or the news outlet more negatively or perceive it as biased. This held true for Republican, Democratic and independent respondents.

The results of this experiment show that contextual fact-checks can be remarkably successful in correcting misperceptions. In addition, compared to fact-checks of politicians and candidates, they run a smaller risk of creating a partisan backlash.


This piece is adapted from “Contextual Fact-Checking: A New Approach to Correcting Misperceptions and Maintaining Trust,” part of a white paper series on media and democracy commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Read the complete paper and learn more about how thinking about faction can help guide practical solutions to combat misinformation.