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To be fast and accurate - a dilemma for journalists during crises

News: Mar 30, 2020

When the crisis strikes journalists struggle with being both quick and correct. Often news are being published with wordings like ”according to unconfirmed (or uncertain) information”.

The researchers Jacob Sohlberg and Bengt Johansson at University of Gothenburg have investigated if the public understand these so called journalistic disclaimers.

The pandemic caused by the new corona virus shows clearly that news are hard currency in a crisis. The need of information is almost infinite, and communication officers and journalists work intensely with producing and sending out information. But, speed and truth are not always the same thing.

Research about Crisis Communication at JMG

At JMG the research project KRISAMS (Crisis Communication and Social Trust in a Multi-Public Society) funded by the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency have been conducting research since 2017.

A brand new study has been published where researchers investigate how journalists use different expressions to signal that news are not quite yet reliable and confirmed by the authorities.

Fast and accurate

Portrait Bengt Johansson– In crises rumours and half-truths are spread and information is difficult to verify, at least quickly. Speed is vital and it is easy to critizise that facts that are not properly verified are spread, on the other hand the criticism would be hard on journalists and communication officers if they withheld information that could have saved lives.
The dilemma to be both fast and correct is central in crisis communication, explains Bengt Johansson, professor at JMG.

Does the public understand?

The journalists often use the expressions ”uncertain” or ”unconfirmed” information. They understand the meaning of these notions but do common news consumers comprehend? Maybe the public need additional information about what these journalistic disclaimers mean to be able to actually assess what it means when it comes to how reliable the news actually are?

The terrorrist attack in Stockholm

In connection with the terrorist attack in Stockholm 2017 the scientists made an experiment to test if people grasp the journalistic disclaimers.
It turned out that the public has difficulties in seeing them, especially in a stressful situation. The results are published in the book ”Allt tyder på ett terrordåd” – Stockholmsattentatet i medier och opinion (Institutet för Mediestudier, 2018) and in the article Did it really happen? How the Public Inteprets Journalistic Disclaimers” (Journalism & Mass Communication Quaterly, 2020).

Completely new investigation

Portrait Jacob Sohlberg–  We have now made a new study in cooperation with SVT who are considering if their journalists could use other journalistic disclaimers when reporting, says Jacob Sohlberg.

In this study the researchers use an experiment with a fictional news broadcast about a knife attack at Riksbron in Stockholm. 2627 people took part of the news that were designed in different ways. The researchers wanted to investigate if it mattered which words that were used, ”unconfirmed” or ”uncertain” and also if the public´s view on how reliablie the news were was affected by if the news reporter explained what the journalistic disclaimers meant.

It seems to be working

The new study, like the previous one, shows that journaistic disclaimers seem to work. They make the news appear as less reliable, if the uncertainty is very clearly indicated. Otherwise this will be missed by the reader/viewer.

However it doesn´t seem to matter what word – unconfirmed or uncertain – the journalists use to indicate that information is not quite reliable.

Advice to journalists in an exceptional situation

– But a crisis as extensive as the corona crisis is of course exceptional, stresses Bengt Johansson. In a strained situation like this we read, hear or see the news faster and we easily miss nuances like whether the information is uncertain or unconfirmed.

His advice to journalists today is to rather avoid publishing new that need journalistic disclaimers. But if they still choose to do so it´s important to be very clear and explain that a piece of news is uncertain/unconfirmed and what that means. They can for example state as in the experiment in the new study ”the information about this suspected knife attack are still uncertain, meaning that we haven´t received the information from an official source”.

The latest study has recently been published in the report ”Uppgifterna om det misstänkta knivdådet är ännu osäkra….”. Ett experiment om användandet av journalistiska osäkerhetsmarkörer (JMG, Göteborgs universitet, 2020).

Cooperation with the Laboratory of Opinion Research (LORE) at the SOM-institute

The data collection for both experiments was made by the Laboratory of Opinion Research (LORE) at the SOM-institute, University of Gothenburg during autumn 2017 and spring 2019. https://som.gu.se/


Further reading



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