If They Can’t Prove It, We Shouldn’t Say It

Stenography does not count as reporting

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has an interesting, if dispiriting, column out today in which he acknowledges some sobering news: the mainstream media’s best efforts to refute the false “death panel” rumors seem to have had little effect on public opinion. As he writes:

While there is legitimate debate about the legislation’s funding for voluntary end-of-life counseling sessions, the former Alaska governor’s claim that government panels would make euthanasia decisions was clearly debunked. Yet an NBC poll last week found that 45 percent of those surveyed believe the measure would allow the government to make decisions about cutting off care to the elderly—a figure that rose to 75 percent among Fox News viewers.

Other polls come to a similar conclusion. Of the 86 percent of respondents in a recent Pew pollwho’d heard of the death panel claim, for example, only half said it was “not true.” The immovability of public perception on this issue, Kurtz writes, “was a stunning illustration of the traditional media’s impotence.” It was also unsurprising. The available evidence suggests that orthodox journalistic strategies to push back against misinformation are unlikely to succeed. Once ideas take root, they’re incredibly hard to dislodge, especially if people have a motive—such as ideological or partisan bias—to believe them.

So what’s a journalist to do? We can start by not by making a more concerted effort not to disseminate false or dubious claims in the first place. That’s obviously not a foolproof response; the “death panel” claim, for example, was given a boost when Sarah Palin advanced it on her Facebook page. But just because the mainstream media is no longer the ultimate gatekeeper doesn’t mean that it should fling the gates it does control open wide, allowing half-truths, misleading interpretations and outright lies through just because they’re advanced by people in positions of power.

It’s hard to see how to turn this into operational advice. It’s a truism, after all, that politicians lie, or at the very least, mislead, but a blanket rule against quoting politicians—or, more narrowly, against quoting assertions of fact made by politicians—doesn’t seem like a workable solution. And while the “death panel” lie was both obviously false and easily shown to be so, many misleading statements are borderline—or, as Stephen Colbert might put it, “truthy”—and efforts to fact-check them would be time-consuming, painstaking, and occasionally fruitless. It’s not feasible to ask reporters to examine every statement that a politician makes for fidelity to reality.

What is feasible, though, is a broader reconsideration of the categories of stories that are likely to advance misinformation—to think not in terms of individual effort, but in structures and forms. Politicians—even more than opinion columnists—have an incentive to mislead. Consequently, newspapers should be reluctant to turn scarce op-ed space over to them, and when they do, the results should be subject to heightened scrutiny.

Similarly, it makes sense to ask what is being gained when major newspapers decide to anthologize and publish, without close examination, statements made by politicians on television talk shows—a forum which, itself, is one of the best ways for politicos to spread misinformation. There’s a legitimate purpose, of course, in reporting the stated views of politicians, especially those who occupy important strategic positions in an ongoing debate. But the goal should be to avoid transmitting false claims in the process, and some types of stories are more likely than others to be vehicles for misinformation.

The traditional journalistic view is that, amidst the hurly-burly of public discourse, somehow the truth will out—that competing claims do battle, are held up to scrutiny, and, more times than not, the one found wanting fades away. But there’s actually little reason to believe journalists can refute misinformation, which means there’s greater responsibility not to amplify it in the first place. Or, as Ezra Klein put it today, also at the Post’s site: “Reporting the facts is important. But so too is not reporting—or at least not focusing, day after day—on the lies.”

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.