Interestingly, in this study on death panels, there were a fair amount of stories where journalists just said it in their own words—“this is false, this is misleading.” So they’re perfectly comfortable doing it sometimes and under some circumstances. And I don’t even know how thoughtful that was because in many cases it wasn’t bolstered by evidence. There was no “Here’s three reasons why it’s false.” They were just saying it.
I was struggling to see the value of procedural objectivity at all by the time I got to the end Matt’s story on the report. It’s something that we’re taught from the very beginning of our careers or our studies. What is the value of it?
I think if I were one of my colleagues, who is a dyed-in-the-wool professional journalist teaching basic journalism classes, I would give a very different answer It is, as you know, a very tried-and-true way of playing it down the middle. I think the real value of that kind of reporting is that it’s easy, it’s formulaic—which in these times when reporters are pressed to do more and more with less and less, formulas are valuable—and it’s safe. It’s harder to be accused either by your editor, or by readers, or by critics on the other side of the aisle of being biased if you’ve covered both sides, and what they have to say.
So it’s a lot more valuable to the reporter than to the reader?
I like the way you put that.
You mentioned this earlier and it comes up often in the report: journalists who debunk a claim like death panels and then quote both sides anyway, can confuse readers. Is that something you found statistically or was it just an observation?
Based on these data we can’t say whether it actually confuses the reader. In fact, the next step we would like to take with this research is to very carefully construct news stories using these elements of debunking, not debunking, he-said she-said, no he-said she-said. Then we get that into an experimental lab setting where we could get people reading different kinds of formats and really find out whether people really are more confused at the end of the day in that situation. So I can’t really say it is confusing; it’s more of a hunch at this point.
The report seems to suggest that a straightforward debunking without any he-said she-said is a less confusing way to address misinformation. But in some cases you’re going to have to quote both sides, even if you are debunking a story, because the quote itself is the story.
In the birther issue, for example, the story was that Donald Trump, a prominent businessman, has come out and said the president was not born in this country, not that there was any chance this was true. To do the story you have to include the falsehood. Or do you just not do the story and thereby prevent the idea from being reinforced?
That’s exactly the dilemma. We could even say that’s the trap. Anybody who wants to make news just needs to come up with some sort of claim like this and they can be relatively certain that journalists will use exactly that logic and help them publicize their claim. No matter what else they do with it the claim will be out there in the discourse. The real question in my mind then becomes whether news organizations decide that when something is definitively shown to be false, they’re just not going to cover it anymore. That would be a real redefinition of what news is. Because, as you said, if Donald Trump says it, then Donald Trump saying it is the story. That’s a certain way of doing journalism, to say that the news is what important and notable people say. There’s the rub.