Digital Publishing

Accurate Reporting Takes Layers

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Donald Trump is no longer the president, and gone with him are some of the journalistic headaches that came with the most powerful man on Earth freely lying as easily and often as he blinked.

Unfortunately, a majority of Republicans in Congress often went along with Trump’s lies, even going so far as to vote to throw out legitimate election results in two states, disenfranchising millions of voters based on cynical falsehoods Trump telegraphed long before a single vote was cast.

While Trump may be gone, these Republicans remain in office, in many cases voted in by readers of your newspaper or online publication. So, how should reporters cover politicians if their statements or positions aren’t supported by any factual record supported by evidence?

My suggestion would be to paraphrase advice given by Mitt Romney: Tell readers the truth.

Through Trump’s four years as president, “bothsidesism” became a controversial topic in media circles. On the one hand, you had Democrats mostly engaging with the factual record, while Republicans—led by Trump—said or did whatever they felt was necessary to push forward their agenda. This was often followed by bad faith arguments about media bias when the coverage didn’t skew their way, which further bent reporters motivated by the perception of fair and honest coverage.

As Jon Allsop astutely pointed out in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, one issue is our knee-jerk reflex to often frame political stories around partisanship.

Take Kevin McCarthy, a Republican congressman from California who is currently the minority leader in the House of Representatives. During the House’s impeachment vote, McCarthy said Trump “bears responsibility” for the deadly riots that overran the U.S. Capitol in January. Those comments were carried wide and far, painting McCarthy as a rare responsible Republican willing to criticize the leader of his own party.

In other words, a hero, and someone reasonable voters in his district can support. 

Unfortunately, many news outlets left out that McCarthy was one of the most outspoken defenders of Trump’s lies about the election, voting to disenfranchise millions of voters in Pennsylvania and Arizona and signing on to a Texas lawsuit aimed at overturning the election. It’s the same McCarthy who told Fox News in November, claiming Trump won the election, that Republicans “cannot allow” Democrats to steal the election, asking supporters to “join together and let’s stop this.”

Those readers would have been better served hearing McCarthy’s comments summed up by CNN’s Jake Tapper.

“As if Kevin McCarthy has not been fueling these lies, spreading these lies. He knows when he goes on Fox we can see him, right?” Tapper said after McCarthy’s vote not to impeach Trump. “I’m sorry, Kevin, but we all saw you say that. You can’t pretend now that you didn’t let the genie out of the bottle.”

When it comes to some of these lawmakers, the simplest approach may be to simply not repeat the lie they’re spouting. Yes, there will always be social media and fringe outlets willing to push even the most bogus claims imaginable, but news organizations publishing the same lies—even to correct them—run the risk of spreading them to a larger audience. It’s easy, though not often as engaging, to report that someone made false claims without quoting the false claims themselves.

Unfortunately, some lies and misstatements are too important for journalists to ignore, especially if they are made by public officials. The struggle then becomes how to report on a lie itself. Is the proper strategy to call out the lie, or should we simply report the misstatement and factcheck it for the reader?

In those cases, it may be time to employ a “truth sandwich.”

Developed by author and linguist George Lakoff and promoted by New York University professor and author Jay Rosen (whom you should really follow on Twitter @jayrosen_nyu), it’s a simple framework on how to construct your lede or social media posts when covering blatant lies or wild misstatements without inadvertently spreading them further.

Here’s how Lakoff describes it:

  1. Start with the truth. The first frame gets the advantage.
  2. Indicate the lie. Avoid amplifying the specific language if possible.
  3. Return to the truth. Always repeat truths more than lies.

“Many journalists still assume that language is neutral, that you can just repeat language and it’s completely neutral. In fact, language is never neutral. Language is always framed in a certain way, and it always has consequences,” Lakoff said in an interview with Vox.

As an example, let’s take Trump’s false claim (which he repeated often during the campaign) that the only reason the number of COVID-19 cases was increasing across the country was because states were testing more people for the virus.

Here’s how USA TODAY handled that claim, using the truth sandwich construction: “Not only are COVID-19 cases up, so too are hospitalizations and deaths. However, during the debate, President Trump blamed the higher numbers on testing, which is not true. Extensive testing will identify more cases, but only if those infections exist.”

Another example, highlighted by Rosen, is this Associated Press lede on a factcheck of falsehoods made by Trump about the pandemic, which include his incorrect claim that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu and that his administration developed a cure: “Sidelined but not silenced, President Donald Trump demonstrated anew this past week he can’t be relied on to give a straight account of the disease that has afflicted millions, now including him. He heralded the arrival of a COVID-19 cure, which did not happen, and likened the coronavirus to the common flu even while knowing better.”

“The idea is to bracket the troublesome claim between accurate statements so that it is neither the first nor the last impression in a news bulletin,” Rosen wrote on Twitter in a thread explaining the truth sandwich technique. “This is not a solution to the problem of how to report on false charges and likely BS, just a better practice that is not hard to learn, and could become newsroom policy tomorrow.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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