Institutional Reality Monitoring and the Problem of Fake News

Karen Mitchell

Karen Mitchell

Karen J. Mitchell
West Chester University of Pennsylvania, USA

In the Spring/Summer 2017 The Amplifier Magazine, I reviewed how we might leverage what cognitive psychologists know about individual and interpersonal reality monitoring (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993) to better understand how individuals assess the legitimacy of news sources and the veracity of news reports and where they go wrong (Mitchell, 2017). We can scale up this framework to understand how institutions such as the news media, government, the courts, and scientists monitor each other—what Marcia Johnson has called institutional reality monitoring (Johnson, 1996; 1998; 2007).  Such an understanding can most certainly inform the issue of fake news.

The news media is an important institution for monitoring the activities of institutions that act in the public interest such as governments, courts, and science (Johnson, 2007). Of course institutions, such as the courts, monitor the veracity of what is reported in the news and the appropriateness of how reporting gets done (Hudson, 2002; Shubert & Schmidt, 2017; Text of The Supreme Court’s Opinion in the Libel Case Against The New York Times, 1964). As an institution, the news media also polices itself, as when many main stream media outlets reported vigorously on NBC anchor Brian Williams’ false account of how an Iraq war event in which he was involved transpired (CBS News, 2015; Washington Post, 2015; New York Times, 2015). More recently, several online platforms by which people get news, such as Google and Facebook, have taken on the challenge of policing themselves by trying to filter fake news stories from their sites (Wakabayashi & Isaac, 2017), and giving users more options to help identify fake information, including flagging questionable information for other users (Moseri, 2016).

At least in the United States, this balancing act of institutional reality monitoring is intended to be an open and transparent process with checks and balances designed to maintain the integrity of and public trust in institutions such as the news media. However, the situation has become increasingly less transparent over time. As Johnson has pointed out (Johnson, 2007), with respect to the media, institutional reality monitoring was easier “back in the day” when there were relatively limited media sources and the lines between the various “types” of sources were clearer.  Whether in print or electronic format, for the most part, there were “hard news” outlets intended to report legitimate news of international, national, state, and/or local interest. Other outlets, such as magazines, typically covered “soft news” (background and “fluff” stories) and outlets such as tabloids were understood to be sources of entertainment.  Clear understanding of the nature of the sources made it fairly easy to keep things straight with respect to the veracity and credibility of the information and its relationship to reality.  The discrimination has become more difficult with the proliferation of more ambiguous sources such as TV “news magazine” shows that might dramatize events to increase viewers, or docudramas which often do not clearly articulate for their audience which aspects of the story are the ‘docu’ and which the ‘drama’ (see for example the controversy about “Making a Murderer,” Smith, 2016; Shapiro, 2016; Victor, 2016). Cognitive psychology research on reality monitoring shows that people’s ability to monitor the source of information typically gets worse the more similar the sources, i.e., the more the characteristics of the sources overlap (Henkel, Franklin, & Johnson, 2000; Lindsay, Allen, Chan, & Dahl, 2004). It seems reasonable then to hypothesize that the more we make our sources for entertainment “look like” our sources for news (and vice versa), or the more that overtly politically biased and/or fringe news sources become normalized or mainstreamed, the more difficult it will be to monitor the credibility of the source and legitimacy of its information at the institutional or individual level.

Monitoring the credibility of the source and content of news gets even more difficult when institutions, such as governments, sponsor/pay for “news” stories that push their political agenda (Kornblutt, 2005; Timberg, 2016), especially if these stories get carried by reputable news sources. Such nefarious conflicts of interest between institutions are not limited to the government and the news. For example, some medical and scientific publishing companies put out “fake journals” surreptitiously sponsored by private entities such as pharmaceutical companies. These journals can sometimes be difficult to spot as fake, and the supposed empirical studies typically support the products of the sponsoring companies without much legitimate scientific evidence and no real review/editorial process (Grant, 2009). Perhaps worse, other fake medical journals push pseudoscience (Salzberg, 2017). Other types of predatory journals with little or no real academic basis, whose sole purpose is profit, abound (Sorokowski, Kulczycki, Sorokowska, & Pisanski, 2017). Even legitimate academic journals have monitoring problems; for example, recently, fake “peer reviews” have led to the retraction of hundreds of published papers (McCook, 2017).

All of these issues of institutional reality monitoring (and more) are important and deserving of further empirical investigation by media, social, and cognitive psychologists. But an important point made by Johnson is that many of the mechanisms of reality monitoring that we already understand at the individual level are likely at play (Johnson, 1996; 2007). As scientists, educators, journalists, and jurists try to develop tools to improve monitoring of the credibility and legitimacy of news sources and the veracity of their content (e.g., Associated Press, 2017; Calvert, 2017; Chabris & Simons, 2015; Schulten, 2015; The News Literacy Project; Williams, 2017; Wilson, 2017) we should be able to leverage the substantial knowledge already generated in cognitive psychology about reality monitoring to better understand the problems that arise at the individual, interpersonal, and institutional level.


Henkel, L. A., Franklin, N., & Johnson, M. K. (2000). Cross-modal source monitoring confusions between perceived and imagined events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26, 321–335.

Johnson, M.K. (1996). Fact, fantasy, and public policy. In D. Hermann, C.McEvoy, C. Hertzog, P. Hertel, & M.K. Johnson (Eds.), Basic and Applied Memory Research: Theory in Context (Vol. 1, pp. 83-103). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Johnson, M.K. (1998). Individual and cultural reality monitoring. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 560, 179-193.

Johnson, M.K. (2007). Reality monitoring and the media. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 981-993.

Johnson, M.K., Hashtroudi, S., & Lindsay, D.S. (1993). Source monitoring. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 3-28.

Lindsay, D. S., Allen, B. P., Chan, J. C. K., & Dahl, L. C. (2004). Eyewitness suggestibility and source similarity: Intrusions of details from one event into memory reports of another event. Journal of Memory and Language, 50, 96–111.

(Acknowledgement: I’m grateful to Marcia K. Johnson for her seminal work on these issues—her publications, presentations, and our many conversations on these topics inspired this article.)

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