Creating and Curating Controversial Content

Reporting is easy when the issues surrounding the information are basically straightforward. But recent extenuating circumstances—in particular, the conflicting viewpoints surrounding hate crimes, climate change, and vaccinations—have flipped the script.

In February 2019, Chicago was thrust into the national spotlight regarding an alleged hate crime against Jussie Smollett, a TV actor. Smollett stated that he was attacked by thugs wearing MAGA hats, who threw a noose around his neck and yelled racial and homophobic slurs. Some sensed a hoax immediately, while others expressed outrage. An investigation found his allegations to be fabricated, and this prompted Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens to take issue with the cynicism and compassion fatigue that sometimes set in when hate crime allegations are found to be untrue. While she concedes that skepticism over the attack was warranted in a “world dotted with people who traffic in deceit,” there is “no shame in believing people who say they were assaulted”—and our default position should be “belief.”

As content creators, how do we default to belief without sharing fake news? Further, what if our readers do not default to belief? How can we encourage them to consider an alternative viewpoint? 

Ultimately, we want people to read, reflect on, and respond to our work. We want our readers to think about the issues at hand and how they affect their lives and worldviews. How do we ensure that our research and reporting practices remain sound and intact in a world where narratives can change on a dime? Advice from professionals who have experience with climate change and vaccine reluctance can help.

Pre-bunking is a technique used to launch a pre-emptive strike to counter misinformation surrounding controversial topics. Researchers at the University of Cambridge performed a test case regarding climate change, in which they prepared a counter brief refuting arguments against causes of climate change and distributed it along with a brief containing false claims about climate change and a “truth brief” containing a consensus from more than 97% of climate scientists. Those who read all three documents were more likely to believe the truth brief compared to those who read only the truth brief and document with false claims. Why would that be?

“When information feels easy to process, people tend to nod along,” according to Eryn Newman of Australian National University, per an article on However, when people are warned that others might attempt to deceive them, they change the way they process information, transitioning from an automatic way of thinking (System One) to “a slower but more powerful thinking mode” (System Two), according to the article.

Authors of an article on recommend keeping cognitive biases in mind and avoiding only looking at evidence that supports preconceived views. Pointing to research by psychologist Cornelia Betsch, they suggest “calling out distortions in the science,” which results when statistics are cherry-picked or lack context or when data is manipulated to support a theory. Research also found that emphasizing consensus among the scientific community lends credibility. When vaccine-reluctant parents were told that “90 percent of medical scientists agree that vaccines are safe,” the concern about a perceived link between vaccines and autism was reduced. Efforts to work in tandem with confirmation bias have also been successful; researchers who emphasized the dangers of measles, mumps, and rubella allied themselves with vaccine skeptics since the belief of “diseases being dangerous” basically fits with their viewpoint.

When researchers used narratives instead of statistics to emphasize the importance of vaccines—and interviewed subjects regarding their specific vaccine concerns—parents felt respected and heard. This is probably the most important takeaway. The best approach is to listen to both sides, operate from a position of respect, and stick to “just the facts, ma’am.”    

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