When The Press Slips Up: Corrections Reduce Trust, Study Finds

Corrections, long viewed as essential to journalistic credibility,  reduce trust, not bolster it, according to “The Corrections Dilemma: Media Retractions Increase Belief Accuracy But Decrease Trust,” a study published in the Journal of Experimental Political Science.

News Co/Lab partnered with colleagues at Dartmouth College to study the impact of corrections when reporters "inevitably" make mistakes in this age of social media.   

The participants included 2,862 respondents, of whom “45% were male, 56% were college graduates, 74% were white, and 66% were 25–44 years old. 38% identified as Democrat and 9% leaned Democrat; 36% identified as Republican and 8% leaned Republican.” 



They were first sent a set of fake tweets containing an inaccurate story. This reported that a jihadi left Canada to become an ISIS executioner.  

The story had run in The New York Times, which had to retract it, but the study researchers attributed it to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), “a less well-known and less polarizing news outlet among Americans.”

The participants then received a series of tweets in random order: 

  • No correction: Respondents do not encounter any further information about the story 
  • News outlet correction: A tweet retracting the story ("reporting  fell short of our standards") 
  • Third party correction: A tweet from a third party saying the story was false . 
  • Both corrections (news outlet first).
  • Both corrections (third party first). 

The results would probably not please veteran news professionals.  

No matter who posted the correction, “survey participants were afterward less likely to say they trusted the news outlet’s reporting,” write the researchers led by led by Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth,

They add, “Retracting their story will better inform their audience, but reduce trust in their news organization.” Third-party corrections were much less effective, 

Does this mean newsrooms should not correct misinformation? 


“I fear that some journalists will read this as an invitation to forego corrections,” Dan Gillmor writes in NiemanLab, which covered the study. “Not only is that ethically suspect, it’s counterproductive, since someone else is bound to notice the error and tell the world, usually with the help of other media critics.”

Moreover, the study authors note that the negative effects of corrections are minimal. 

“Retracting a story increases respondent belief accuracy dramatically but only modestly decreases trust in the news outlet,” they write.

Despite the slight loss of trust, it is clear that corrections are the only responsible action for publications when they make mistakes. 


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