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The scary truth about our own confidence

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By Megan Fromm, CJE

With Halloween just days away, ghost hunters and spooky pranksters are out in full force. But for journalists, there’s still something scarier than a grim reaper or a bad Miley Cyrus costume: errors in fact.

Photo by Dawn Ellner, used with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Dawn Ellner, used with Creative Commons license.

And while fact-checking is a common and methodical way to ensure accuracy in reporting, experts are now pointing to a more personal attribute that often stands in the way of truth. Simply put, researchers have found that each of us has the propensity to be a “confident idiot,” meaning we often overestimate our expertise on any given subject. 

Instead of admitting to our own ignorance, we can be duped into thinking we know things we don’t, or that we have knowledge that actually exceeds our current understanding of a topic or concept.

For many journalists, acknowledging this Achille’s heal is an important step in becoming adept, truth-seeking reporters—when we stop assuming we know so much, we start looking for better and more specific information. After all, what good is a five-step fact-checking process if we’re unlikely to believe we could get something wrong in the first place?

Named the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” this common inability for humans to recognize our own ineptitude has serious implications for journalists and for news media consumers.

As a journalist, understanding this phenomenon means that I will be slightly more skeptical of how “authoritative” my sources seems. It means that I’ll delve more critically into their own claims of fact and be sure to investigate my source’s background to determine his/her real level of expertise.

For student journalists, this is especially vital. How many times have students overstated knowledge of a certain event or situation? Our students want to trust their peers, and their peers are likely to exaggerate connections. Knowing this, and taking steps to mitigate it, keeps journalistic integrity intact.

Ask your student journalists to brainstorm a list of “experts” on different topics at your school. Then, compile a master list, “vetting” those experts by getting as much background information as possible.

As news and media consumers, we must first acknowledge our own propensity to be “confident idiots.” (Here’s a touch of irony: I even vastly overestimated my ability to write this post in the time I had allotted myself. Turns out the researchers were right!).

This means I should be willing to evaluate my own knowledge base before assuming others are (or are not) experts. I might ask myself what experience or education is most relevant to the news and information I receive, and I would try to be honest about my personal deficits, filling in the gaps as necessary.

While it’s scary to think we might be so out of touch with our own intelligence, a little due diligence (and sometimes a light-hearted reality check) can go a long way.

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