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New Research: Cleantechers Have to Win the Race to Define, Not Just “Respond”

2 min. read

According to a recent TechCrunch story, "when untruthful information is immediately corrected in a news story," it doesn't fix the effect. In fact, a new study concludes, calling out false information can paradoxically make users “more resistant to factual information." Or, as the TechCrunch article puts it: "The more truth we read, the more we tend to believe strongly held lies."

This research has clear implications for the clean energy industry's fight against the aggressive disinformation aimed at it by the fossil fuel lobby. You know, the refrain that clean energy is "intermittent," "expensive," "unreliable,"  "not competitive without subsidies," etc. People holding negative beliefs seem to get even more entrenched when confronted by facts, which reinforces Dr. Drew Westen’s groundbreaking research at Emory University showing that people make an emotional connection to messages first, then consider facts – in that order.

What does that mean for clean energy companies, investors and advocates? At least two things:

  • First, corrected news or blog copy doesn't fix reader impressions incorrectly set by flawed reporting or blogging. As I was told in math class in high school: Necessary, but not sufficient.
  • Second, competitive communications is a race to define both you and your opponents. That doesn’t mean mudslinging, it means setting the framing first. If you lose the race to define, you don’t get to make up for the loss by correcting the record, as so many cleantech communicators relegate themselves to doing. In fact, an approach that only “corrects the record” is a losing strategy.

For reporters and bloggers in a “post truth” age of iterative reporting, here’s what this means: your readers are your top priority, and it’s important to get it right first, not just just be the fastest. You have to make judgment calls about who’s wrong, and they have to be reflected in the reporting. Corrections in the iterative journalism process won’t erase the damage done by errors in details or framing at the outset. The default setting of he said-he said reporting doesn’t cut it any more.