Dateline: April, 2022, Issue 4

How does media coverage of a case affect eyewitness memory?

Journalists rely on eyewitnesses for many important details in news reports of legal cases. Reporters ask eyewitnesses questions and publish news reports of information that both include and go beyond what any one eyewitness says. Eyewitnesses both questioned and not questioned by reporters are exposed to the published news reports.

Blom and Huang (2021) conducted three studies investigating whether news reporters taint eyewitness memories either directly through misleading questions to eyewitnesses or indirectly by publishing information that eyewitnesses then encounter. In all three studies, participants acted as an eyewitness to a robbery, and watched a 1-minute video of a store robbery placed online by a police department. In the crime, a man robbing the store threatened a clerk with a gun, but the gun was not visible in the video. Two of the studies tested the influence of misleading questions on memories of eyewitnesses; the third study tested the influence of a news report on the memories of eyewitnesses.

In Study 1, after watching the store robbery video, the witnesses were asked a number of questions about what they saw, including three questions about the robber, specifically, about a weapon, wearing of jewelry, and tattoos. Some witnesses were asked nonleading versions of the three questions: Did the robber have a weapon? Did the robber wear any jewelry? Did the robber have any tattoos?. Other witnesses were asked misleading (assumptive) versions of the questions: Could you describe in what hand the robber had his weapon? What kind of jewelry was the robber wearing? What shape was the robber's tattoo?. When witnesses were asked the nonleading questions, witness memories were not without error: one (1.5%) remembered seeing a weapon, 15% remembered jewelry, and 13% remembered tattoos. When witnesses were asked the misleading (assumptive) questions, far more errors occurred: 50% reported seeing a weapon, 34% remembered jewelry, and 31% remembered a tattoo. Reporters' questions are not answered by eyewitnesses completely accurately, and misleading (assumptive) questions cause a misinformation effect in the memories of witnesses.

In Study 2, the witnesses not only watched the store robbery video and answered either the nonleading or misleading (assumptive) questions, they additionally were asked to describe the weapon. Like Study 1, when asked nonleading questions, only one witness remembered seeing a weapon, 9% remembered jewelry, and 9% remembered tattoos; and when asked the misleading (assumptive) questions, 37% remembered a weapon, 35% remembered jewelry, and 18% remembered a tattoo. In this study, when asked the nonleading questions, only one witness went on to describe the weapon, whereas when asked the misleading (assumptive) questions, 20% went on to describe the weapon (more often a knife than a gun). Reporters' questions caused false memories in witnesses: Despite no weapon being visible in the video, a considerable number of witnesses remembered in which hand the weapon was positioned and additionally described the weapon.

Study 3 examined whether published news reports are able to alter the memories of witnesses. In Study 3, after watching the robbery video, witnesses read a news story about the same robbery. Some witnesses read a story that hinted that the robber possessed a knife, while other witnesses read a news story that hinted that the robber possessed a gun. Witnesses were then asked whether they had seen a weapon in the video, read about a weapon in the news article, both, or neither. After reading the news story, 11% of witnesses claimed to have seen the nonvisible weapon in the robbery video (versus 1% asked the nonleading questions without having read a news story in Studies 1 and 2). After reporting on any source of weapon information, all witnesses then were asked the misleading (assumptive) question about the weapon, and 49% reported seeing a weapon (versus 37% asked misleading questions without reading a news report in Study 2). Over a quarter of the witnesses (28%) went on to describe the weapon (versus 20% asked the misleading questions without having read a news story in Study 2). Overwhelmingly, almost all witnesses (90%) in Study 3 described the weapon as it was presented to them in the news story, and some of the witnesses also reported they remembered seeing the nonvisible weapon in the video and provided a further description of it. News reports altered eyewitness memories: Despite no weapon being visible in the video, a considerable number of witnesses remembered in which hand the weapon was positioned and described the weapon variously as a knife or a gun in accord with the news story they had read.

In sum, misleading questions and misinformation in a news report independently and additively can result in eyewitnesses remembering that which they did not see. News reporters can taint eyewitness memories both directly by asking misleading (assumptive) questions and indirectly by publishing information in news reports that witnesses personally did not see.

Source Blom, R. & Huang, K-T. (2021). Eyewitness memory contamination through misleading questions by reporters. Newspaper Research Journal, 42(3), pp. 346-363.