By contrast, both the Associated Press and Politico stood out for their excellent coverage of the controversy, which emphasized that the belief was a fringe notion that was not widely held in the mainstream. One version of the AP story, which was written by Christopher S. Rugaber and Scott Mayerowitz, invoked conspiracy theories about Sasquatch, the Kennedy assassination, and the staging of the moon landing in its lede. In a subsequent version, Rugaber and Mayerowitz described the advocates of BLS manipulation as “conspiracists” and noted in their lede that “[c]areer government officials, economists and even some Mitt Romney supporters” found the claim implausible, including the outgoing commissioner of the BLS, a Bush appointee, who they quote stating that it would be “impossible” to manipulate the numbers. Similarly, Politico’s Patrick Reis emphasized the bipartisan consensus that the charges are bogus. Under the headline “The jobs number truther movement,” Reis emphasized in his lede that “Republicans who have worked with the jobs numbers” think the charges are “[b]unk,” quoting unequivocal denunciations from a former chief economic adviser to President George W. Bush and a Bush spokesperson.

Here in New Hampshire, the news was not much better. While the sober-minded Concord Monitor, which tends to avoid the worst excesses of national politics, did not cover the conspiracy theories, the Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, paired a straight front-page news article on the implications of the jobs report for the state with an awful Bloomberg story by Tim Catts that also appeared on the Boston Globe’s Politics page online (A Bloomberg News business story that ran on B06 of the Union Leader did briefly quote an economist calling Welch’s theory “absolutely garbage.”) The Catts story re-states Welch’s claim in the lede without providing any clue to readers that it is false, and largely portrays the matter as one that is in dispute between Welch, a Romney supporter, and the Obama administration. Similarly, the Globe ran a print article on the jobs report by Matt Viser that quoted Welch’s conspiracy theorizing without bothering to rebut it.

The Bloomberg story that appeared in the Union Leader and on BostonGlobe.com provides an instructive contrast with the AP story. Consider the images below (click to enlarge), which use highlighting to contrast the relative emphasis given by these two stories to specifying Welch’s baseless claims (in red) versus raising questions and reporting criticisms (in green):



We saw the same pattern in coverage of the phony “investigation” of President Obama’s birth certificate by Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s unsubstantiated claims about Mitt Romney not paying taxes for ten years. In both cases, some journalists covered these claims skeptically, while others simply repeated the charges in a “he said,” “she said” style that is likely to disseminate the myths more widely and increase misperceptions.

Reporters shouldn’t be expected to avoid covering controversial claims in the news, but they can exercise judgment in the way they report on those claims. In doing so, the media can weaken the incentives for political elites to promote misinformation rather than amplifying the worst aspects of “freak show” politics.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.