Uncertainty about Facts Can Be Reported Without Damaging Public Trust in News: Study

Catherine Dennison, Welfare Program Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “We are committed to building trust in evidence at a time when it is frequently called into question. This study provides helpful guidance on ensuring informative statistics are credibly communicated to the public.”   

The findings are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most experiment participants were recruited through the online crowdsourcing platform Prolific. They were given short, news-style texts on one of four topics: U.K. unemployment, U.K. immigration, Indian tiger populations, or climate change.

Uncertainty was presented as a single added word (e.g. ‘estimated’), a numerical range, a longer verbal caveat – ‘there is uncertainty around this figure: it could be somewhat higher or lower’ – or combination of these, as well as the ‘control’ of a standalone figure without uncertainty, typical of most news reporting.

They found that the added word did not register with people, and the longer caveat registered but significantly diminished trust – the researchers believe it was too ambiguous. Presenting the numerical range (from minimum to maximum) had the right balance of signaling uncertainty with little evidence for loss of trust.  

Prior views on contested topics within news reports, such as migration, were included in the analysis. Although attitudes towards the issue mattered for how facts were viewed, when openness about data uncertainty was added it did not substantially reduce trust in either the numbers or the source.

The team worked with the BBC to conduct a field experiment in October 2019, when figures were released about the U.K. labor market.

In the BBC’s online story, figures were either presented as usual, a ‘control’, or with some uncertainty – a verbal caveat or a numerical range – and a link to a brief survey. Findings from this ‘real world’ experiment matched those from the study’s other ‘lab conditions’ experiments.   

“We recommend that journalists and those producing data give people the fuller picture,” said co-author Dr Alexandra Freeman, Executive Director of the Winton Centre.

“If a number is an estimate, let them know how precise that estimate is by putting a minimum and maximum in brackets afterwards.”

Sander van der Linden added: “Ultimately we’d like to see the cultivation of psychological comfort around the fact that knowledge and data always contain uncertainty.”

“Disinformation often appears definitive, and fake news plays on a sense of certainty,” he said.

“One way to help people navigate today’s post-truth news environment is by being honest about what we don’t know, such as the exact number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK. Our work suggests people can handle the truth.”

Last month, David Spiegelhalter launched a podcast about statistics, ‘Risky Talk’. In the first episode he discusses communicating climate change data with Sander van der Linden and Dr Emily Shuckburgh, leader of the University’s new climate initiative Cambridge Zero.