A older man reads a newspaper while sitting on a park bench. Photo by Hasan Albari via Pexels.

Today, there is a higher volume of news options than ever before and heightened concerns about the proliferation of “fake news.” One could argue it is more important than ever to research content before relying on it. But consumers are more likely to rely on it first, then verify it, according to recent media studies research.

The team of Stephanie Edgerly, Rachel Mourão, Esther Thorson and Samuel Tham used an experimental design with 841 participants to study when audiences seek to verify the news. After showing respondents a Fox News or Washington Post headline, the experiment asked respondents to indicate if they were likely to check other major news outlets, ask friends/family members, use a search engine, check Facebook/Twitter, or consult some other source to see if the headline was supported. 

Respondents showed greater intent to verify content from a source they considered credible or a headline that they perceived to be congruent with their already-established beliefs. Or, stated in the opposite manner, if participants found a source had low credibility and questioned the veracity of the headline, they showed less intent to verify. This finding goes against the reasonable belief that people would verify a headline if they were uncertain. Instead, readers strove for further proof to information that is consistent with what they want the answer to be.

Validating the news takes extra time and energy on a reader’s part. A reader must take additional actions in response to information they encounter. Overall, the team found respondents were more motivated to engage in confirmatory validation. Why? To dominate debate. “The incentive to take on the extra work of verification is greater when people think they can use the information to win future arguments,” the authors say. Credible headlines that back up partisanship values provide strong evidence for arguments. Less credible headlines that are against partisanship values are useless in debates. And, let’s face it, in this time of extreme partisanship, people are eager for a verbal battle.