Ten Minutes with Rainmaker Raymond Pingree
Raymond Pingree, Doris Westmoreland Darden Professor and associate professor in the
Manship School of Mass Communication, researches political communication and new media
with a particular focus on how good old-fashioned journalism can support a stronger
In this interview, he discusses the impact of “fake news” accusations and how the public should trust the media both more and less.
Tell me about your work on media trust.
A common question is, should people trust the media? That’s kind of the wrong question. We don’t want people to be dupes or be completely cynical. The better questions to ask are, which ways should we trust the media more, and which ways should we trust it less? We need to trust media more to verify information. You have to trust that journalists are checking their sources and reporting the facts and that they work for an organization that will fire them if they don’t.
Generally, there’s less media bias than people think. Not everything is opinion. There are neutral referees of fact, and they’re called journalists.
So, we should trust media more? How about your argument that we should trust media less?
The other area I’ve focused on in my research is to get people to trust the news less to prioritize problems. Don’t assume whatever is covered in the news is what anyone thinks are the most important issues. We hear a lot about scary and new things, and those things aren’t necessarily happening often or affecting a lot of people. The most widespread problems can feel too commonplace to get much news coverage. Cancer and heart disease will never get the same saturation in media coverage as an exotic disease outbreak like Zika, Ebola, or coronavirus, but those two kill far more people, and do so every year.
News media will always focus on situations where there is high conflict and drama, where things are changing fast and scary. News is about things that are new, inherently. So, if you take cues from the mere fact news is covering something a lot, it’s easy to assume they think it’s the most important. Instead, we need to be thinking for ourselves about how important things are, based on facts about the severity of each problem that journalists gather and verify for us.
Tell me about the work you’ve done on how journalists can fight accusations of bias. What can journalists do when someone calls their work “fake news”?
The first thing many people tell me when they hear I study media is they think the media is totally biased. However, research mostly hasn’t supported this. People who work in newsrooms are highly sensitized to political bias and there are so many ways to detect it and avoid it. Journalism is about finding credible sources, checking facts, and assessing evidence. One of our most hopeful research findings has been that when journalists speak up for themselves, explain how they do their work, and defend their own impartiality, it helps.
The trend of calling mainstream journalism “fake news” has had one positive effect in that it’s led to many op-ed pieces defending journalism. When journalists say, “We’re not fake news, we’re the umpire politics desperately needs,” this works. For a long time, journalists mostly avoided responding to bias accusations out of principle. They assumed the best way to show the critics were wrong was to ignore them and just do good work. But we know from persuasion research that when you only hear one side’s arguments and the other side isn’t responding, you interpret that as the other side conceding the point.
Journalists need to speak up and defend their work and their reporting; let people know that it’s fact, not opinion.
The media is often portrayed as powerful. How do you study this power?
People assume the media has big effects, but research into media effects has often been disappointing. This led me to the methods contribution of my research. Just like in medical research, you need true experiments with random assignment to be sure what is causing what. But traditionally, the way people have done experiments in media effects has been something called one-shot forced exposure, meaning randomly assign someone to read one treatment news story or one control news story, or some variation of that. I always had a nagging thought that we needed a more realistic approach with repeated exposure, choice, and real and timely stimuli. So, I created a custom news portal that we pay people to use as their main news source for about a week, and just like Google News, it’s updated 24 hours a day with stories from many sources. We don’t tell them what stories to read. We just manipulate the presence or absence of certain types of stories in the portal, such as fact checks. But it’s not pre-planned fake fact checks written ahead of time by us, it’s whatever real fact check stories happen to be published during the study. This means it’s still a true experiment with random assignment, but it’s random assignment to the cumulative effects of that whole category of real news content that is being published at that time.
How did you choose this field of research to begin with?
I was a software engineer in my previous career. I became really interested in politics and media and wanted to somehow help make our national discussion more rational. I was not expecting to become an academic. I just really believe that communication can solve problems, and I care about making our democracy work better a lot more than how to make a successful website or a more efficient algorithm. I still use those skills in my research, but I’m focused on making change through better communication rather than through technology.
How has your view of what constitutes news changed over time?
Communication is about delegating information work to others, so it’s important that we trust our sources. One way is to pay attention to major news organizations and not click on stuff from organizations you’ve never heard of. On top of that, you have to think for yourself what is really important, knowing that news stories are chosen based on newsworthiness of events, which is a really different thing than importance of problems. We can’t fix the news to make it report on important problems only; we have to fix the misunderstanding many in the audience have that leads them to take the mere fact of news coverage as an importance cue. After all, we don’t call it “importants.” We call it news.
Finally, how do you feel about receiving a Rainmaker award?
I give a lot of the credit for this award to my collaborators and the collaborative research culture here at Manship, where we have a lot of people pulling a lot of weight, including great graduate students. A good research culture makes everyone feel valued and encouraged.
At Manship, we have these professorships that fund our research using funds from generous donors. This way, I’ve been able to innovate and not worry about satisfying external funders or sticking to initial plans from a grant proposal written two years before. I’m not sure any other university has a system like this, giving its own faculty such an easy process for getting small research grants to do cool, new things, but I’ve spent about the last two years creating a new way to do media effects research, and I wouldn’t have been able to do such a risky project without my colleagues and this system. It’s been a great fit for me, and I’m so grateful.
I find that a lot of the systems that are supposed to keep people accountable create pressure to do something predictable. But it’s not really new science if you already know the answer. As a researcher, you need to feel less scared. So, maybe the most important thing about these professorships is they involve very little paperwork and can be pretty vaguely defined up front, allowing the project to evolve when it needs to.
Read more on how Pingree’s work on how journalists can restore media trust on EurekAlert! (December 10, 2018)
The Rainmaker Awards are given each year by the Office of Research & Economic Development, Campus Federal Credit Union, and the Council on Research to faculty who show outstanding research, scholarship, and creative activity for their respective ranks and discipline. The awards recognize both sustained and continuing work, as well as the impact that work has had on faculty members, departments, and our academic community. There are three award categories: Emerging Scholar, Mid-Career Scholar, and Senior Scholar. For each category, an award is offered for a faculty member in the area of Arts, Humanities, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and one in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Emerging Scholar Award
Mid-Career Scholar Award
Senior Scholar Award
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development