“It’s easier to correct what we call a ‘verifiable fact,’” Schafer said, “but if you play with something more ambiguous like death panels it’s just a great way for skilled political communicators to take a position that can’t necessarily be refuted because it has no definition.”
These factors played a role in overriding the attempts to debunk death panels. The more you wrote about how death panels were false or misleading, the more people kept hearing about, picturing, and thinking about death panels. It unleashed a vicious cycle.
Media reports, regardless of their content, can sometimes work to reinforce a falsehood.
We in the press, the people who are supposed to apply verification and be rigorous with what we publish and broadcast, can actually work against the process of correcting and informing people. We amplify falsehoods even as we work to combat them.
One prescription for handling this kind of situation is, as one researcher quoted in the paper said, to “create negative publicity for the elites who are promoting misinformation, increasing the costs for making false claims in the public sphere.”
Meaning: ignore people like Palin when they talk about death panels. But of course ignoring something because it is false is making a judgement, which some journalists seem loathe to do. If the mainstream press did choose to ignore stories like this, it would just enable supporters to claim it’s something the “media elites” don’t want people to know about.
Schafer raised another problem with this advice.
“There is a practical question of: What political journalist in August of 2009 isn’t going to cover the death panel claim just because they already debunked it?” he said. “It’s tough to say to a journalist, ‘If you’re really trying to serve the public best, then don’t cover this anymore.’ It’s like telling them to sit out the big game.”
Taken together, all of these factors have led me to end up in a rather conflicted and frustrated situation. The challenges are clear and well documented.
The solutions, however, are not.
Correction of the Week
“An article on Thursday about technology investments by the actor Ashton Kutcher misspelled in some copies the name of a fashion Web site in his portfolio. It is Fashism, not Fascisms.” - The New York Times