Friday, June 07, 2024

Is it a fact? The epistemic force of language in news headlines.

From Chuey et al. in PNAS (open source):  


Headlines are an influential source of information, especially because people often do not read beyond them. We investigated how subtle differences in epistemic language in headlines (e.g., “believe” vs. “know“) affect readers’ inferences about whether claims are perceived as matters of fact or mere opinion. We found, for example, saying “Scientists believe methane emissions soared to a record in 2021” led readers to view methane levels as more a matter of opinion compared to saying “Scientists know…” Our results provide insight into how epistemic verbs journalists use affect whether claims are perceived as matters of fact and suggest a mechanism contributing to the rise of alternative facts and “post-truth” politics.
How we reason about objectivity—whether an assertion has a ground truth—has implications for belief formation on wide-ranging topics. For example, if someone perceives climate change to be a matter of subjective opinion similar to the best movie genre, they may consider empirical claims about climate change as mere opinion and irrelevant to their beliefs. Here, we investigate whether the language employed by journalists might influence the perceived objectivity of news claims. Specifically, we ask whether factive verb framing (e.g., "Scientists know climate change is happening") increases perceived objectivity compared to nonfactive framing (e.g., "Scientists believe [...]"). Across eight studies (N = 2,785), participants read news headlines about unique, noncontroversial topics (studies 1a–b, 2a–b) or a familiar, controversial topic (climate change; studies 3a–b, 4a–b) and rated the truth and objectivity of the headlines’ claims. Across all eight studies, when claims were presented as beliefs (e.g., “Tortoise breeders believe tortoises are becoming more popular pets”), people consistently judged those claims as more subjective than claims presented as knowledge (e.g., “Tortoise breeders know…”), as well as claims presented as unattributed generics (e.g., “Tortoises are becoming more popular pets”). Surprisingly, verb framing had relatively little, inconsistent influence over participants’ judgments of the truth of claims. These results demonstrate how, apart from shaping whether we believe a claim is true or false, epistemic language in media can influence whether we believe a claim has an objective answer at all.

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