Absolutely. You’ve got pretty organized message machines on both sides of the issue, but I think a very organized message machine on the more right-leaning side of the media and political aisle. And you’ve got a public that is increasingly polarized. That’s not just an offhand observation, that’s something that a lot of research is showing: people are much more innately dividing into camps that could be defined as more liberal or more conservative on these kinds of issues. It’s almost like these issues become shortcuts for people to have their predispositions activated. Say “climate change” and people start to sort themselves into one side of the room or the other. Based on the available data, I think the same is true with death panels. If you say that word in a lot of rooms full of people, I think you would see a fair amount of sorting going on.

Why did you decide not to look at cable news? That would seem to be where a lot of death panel coverage was happening.

There were several reasons, all intertwined. First of all, cable is something that we might not characterize as part of the mainstream media, whatever the heck that is. There are so many problems with terminology these days. But we wanted to start with news organizations that still skewed towards basic norms and routines of mainstream journalism, such as objectivity, however that might be practiced. We wanted to just start with the news organizations that you would expect to play referee rather than just take sides on the issue. Cable is a logical next step—it’s something that we need to do in the research.

You coded the articles as having debunked and not debunked the claim, and then noted whether they had quoted both sides of the story, as well. But did you have a working clear definition of what “debunking” the story meant?

I think as we parsed it more finely the second time around we were able to recognize more subtlety. But just as a first cut we went for something very simple, which is: does the reporter, in his or her own words, say the claim was false, misinformation, misleading… we had a whole long list of the terms. In a way, that’s very blunt, and I suppose the most objective way that we could go about deciding whether the claim has been debunked or not.

But we also included some other measures. We were interested again in whether they relied on non-partisan fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact and Factcheck. We did code for the articles that made reference to those kinds of organizations to sort of bolster the point that this was not a true thing.

Then, in a more subtle way, a reporter can write a story in such a way that all of the information in the story leads to one conclusion, but the reporter never comes out and says that this claim is false. You can report that Sarah Palin calls something death panels, and then you report other people who say that’s not true. You never have to say it in your own words, but you can structure it so that there is no supporting information in the story. When we went back around the second time we also did code for that.

When you were going through these death panel stories, what kind of stories were you finding? Were they policy reports or were they stories about people saying incendiary things? It strikes me that sound bites were the things generating the headlines.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.