Truth or Consequences

How should the press sort fact from fiction in a rumor-ridden world?

Mandated abortions. Dying on a wait list. Death panels. The healthcare debate teems with rumors, innuendo, and flat-out lies—ranging from the troubling to the full-on ridiculous. In the past, perhaps, the press could counter such misinformation with the blanket declaration of “we’re not going to dignify that with coverage”; as the platforms for rumor-mongering have increased, however, news purveyors no longer have that luxury. On the contrary: in journalism’s brave new world, the press has a renewed obligation to help its audience sort fact from fiction—to help them understand, in essence, what to believe.

But the line between countering lies and endorsing them has always been a precarious one. And it is one made even more precarious by the fact that, now, there are so many voices able to shout out the truth through noise alone.

Fact-checking sites like FactCheck and PolitiFact engage in admirable truth-squadding; how can the media more broadly adopt and adapt those outlets’ ethos of fair-minded evaluation? Have you come across other news organizations, or individual stories, that have done a particularly good job of debunking rumors—and can you imagine further innovations that could help the press challenge misinformation in a fair and systematic way? Broadly speaking: given today’s media environment, how should the press discredit lies?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.