Bin Laden used a woman as a human shield and fired at the commando team sent to kill him – at least according to the first reports. These have just been corrected to say he was unarmed and standing alone, but the retractions follow a useful pattern – media friendly version first, accurate version later – because the updates make little impact on our beliefs.
In this particular case, I can’t speculate why the corrections came as they did. Maybe it was genuinely the ‘fog of war’ that led to mistaken early reports, but the fact that the media friendly version almost always appears first in accounts of war is likely, at least sometimes, to be a deliberate strategy.
Research shows that even when news reports have been retracted, and we are aware of the retraction, our beliefs are largely based on the initial erroneous version of the story. This is particularly true when we are motivated to approve of the initial account.
Media coverage of the 2003 Iraq War frequently contained corrections and retractions of earlier information. For example, claims that Iraqi forces executed coalition prisoners of war after they surrendered were retracted the day after the claims were made. Similarly, tentative initial reports about the discovery of weapons of mass destruction were all later disconfirmed.
We investigated the effects of these retractions and disconfirmations on people’s memory for and beliefs about war-related events in two coalition countries (Australia and the United States) and one country that opposed the war (Germany). Participants were queried about (a) true events, (b) events initially presented as fact but subsequently retracted, and (c) fictional events.
Participants in the United States did not show sensitivity to the correction of misinformation, whereas participants in Australia and Germany discounted corrected misinformation. Our results are consistent with previous findings in that the differences between samples reflect greater suspicion about the motives underlying the war among people in Australia and Germany than among people in the United States.
More recent studies have supported the remarkable power of first strike news. The emotional impact of the first version has little influence on its power to persuade after correction, and the misinformation still has an effect even when it is remembered more poorly than the retraction.
Even explicitly warning people that they might be misled doesn’t dispel the lingering impact of misinformation after it has been retracted.
So while the latest reports say Bin Laden was alone and unarmed, the majority of people are likely to believe he was firing from behind a human shield, even when they can remember the corrections.
And if this isn’t being used as a deliberate strategy to manage public opinion, I shall eat my kevlar hat.