This week’s laurel goes to Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic, whose astute web piece “What to Do With Political Lies,” offered some simple, useful advice for how journalists can better respond to misleading and unsubstantiated attacks on the campaign trail.
Franke-Ruta starts with the premise—shared by The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, whose frustrated post about inadequate coverage of some fraudulent Mitt Romney rhetoric she was leaping off—that dedicated factchecking sites are insufficient, because “one-off fact-checking is no match for the repeated lie.”
So if the rest of the journalism world has some responsibility, what are some steps it might take? Here’s Franke-Ruta:
The solution now as then lies in repeated boilerplate, either inserted by editors who back-stop their writers, or by writers who save it as B-matter (background or pre-written text) so they don’t have to come up with a new way of saying something every single time they file. Basic, simple, brief factual boilerplate can save an article from becoming a crutch for one campaign or the other; can save time; and can give readers a fuller understanding of the campaigns, even if they haven’t had time to read deep dives on complex topics.
She adds the key point that this clip-and-save pushback would appear in the voice of the reporter, not from “the other side”—a choice that represents “an editorial decision that the news outlet in question gets to control the terms of the debate on its own pages, rather than outsourcing it to partisans.” That’s a matter of journalistic pride, but also of effectiveness: As Brendan Nyhan and Jason Riefler have written for CJR, when corrections, including pushback on political misinformation, “are embedded in media coverage of partisan politics, they are frequently ineffective and may even make matters worse.” (Nyhan has offered annotated treatments on the do’s and don’ts of covering false or unsubstantiated claims here and here.)
If the use of corrective boilerplate is a helpful tip when it comes to assembling articles, Franke-Ruta also offers this approach to misinformation that relates more to the story-identification process:
The other solution, of course, is to treat repeated lies as a story (something I suspect we’ll see much more of in the months ahead). What is Romney trying to do by repeating false statements about the tweak to welfare rules over and over before working-class white audiences? What is Obama trying to do by focusing on Ryan’s 2011 budget and ignoring his 2012 one? Well, that second one’s kind of obvious. But you get the drift.
The risk in this approach is that it’s very hard to write about a lie without repeating it, and when journalists “treat lies as the story,” they can slide into neutral strategic analysis. Still, done responsibly, this sort of big-picture perspective can expose the roots of rhetorical manipulation and outright falsehoods more comprehensively than B-matter ever could.
So kudos to Franke-Ruta for urging her colleagues—and not just those in the factchecking ghetto—to take this task to heart. There will be ample opportunity to put her suggestions to use over the coming months, which means many more opportunities for laurels—or for darts. Readers, if you come across any candidates, let us know.