How to cover the birthers? Denver Post shows what not to do

After paper asks readers for their "take," radio host offers his

On Thursday, CJR published pieces by Walter Shapiro and Brendan Nyhan that grapple with the question of how journalists can responsibly cover outlandish claims by newsworthy figures, like Donald Trump’s birther comments. They each seek to offer helpful insights about what news organizations can do, and we hope that reporters find them useful.

For a sense of what not to do, meanwhile, check out the website of The Denver Post. The Post’s coverage area has recently seen what might be called a “birther lite” controversy, sparked when incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Coffman said this to supporters: “I don’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don’t know that. But I do know this, that in his heart, he’s not an American. He’s just not an American.” (CJR’s review of the ensuing coverage by a Denver TV station, which prompted apologies by Coffman, is here.)

That episode—along with Trump’s remarks and a similar birther controversy in Arizona—is the backstory for this online poll, which appeared on the Post’s site Wednesday morning:

Now, it’s sort of unfortunate that polling on the question of President Obama’s birthplace exists at all, because those polls inevitably generate news coverage, and the very repetition of false claims in the media—even if only to describe how many people subscribe to them—likely helps perpetuate misinformation. On the other hand, scientifically valid polls on this question (or other false beliefs) do have a legitimate purpose: they can tell us how widely misperceptions are held, and how views are changing over time. And, as Nyhan has previously noted, responsible media coverage can mitigate the potential harmful side effects of reporting on the poll results.

An online poll, though, has no useful purpose; it’s pure junk data. When the questions are about people’s opinions or preferences, that just makes for a harmless diversion, and maybe a cheap and easy opportunity for reader engagement. In this case, however, the poll involves a newspaper—an institution whose core function is to learn and communicate facts about the world—suggesting that there is legitimate disagreement or difference of opinion about what is, simply, a fact. There may be harmful consequences to public knowledge as a result. There are certainly consequences for the Post’s credibility.

That credibility took a further hit thanks to the paper’s decision to publish on Thursday a column by Mike Rosen, an AM radio host at Denver’s KOA, under the headline “Mike Coffman was right about Obama in the first place.” Much of the column is devoted to agreeing with Coffman’s statement that Obama is not an American “in his heart,” and to pillorying the president with a barrage of culture-war epithets: “leftist academic ideologues, blame-America-firsters and would-be revolutionaries,” etc., etc. To my eye, it’s poor writing and poor political argument, but if the Post wants to make sure the Fox & Friends niche is represented in its opinion pages, that’s the paper’s choice.

It’s hard to believe, though, that this passage made it past an editor (emphasis added):

In fact, Coffman separated himself from “birther” activists who express certainty that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. On that matter, Coffman said, “I don’t know.” Neither do I. I’m not certain Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud, but I’m suspicious.

As Shapiro’s post, which drew analogies to ‘50s-era McCarthyism, noted, lines like these are more than just assertions of Obama’s “other-ness.” They amount to evidence-free claims—or, in this case, “suspicions”—that the president of the United States “willfully subverted the Constitution for his own ambition.”

It’s heartening to see, as both Nyhan and Shapiro noted, some news organizations striving to write responsibly about purveyors of these unfounded conspiracy theories. Which makes it all the more galling—and, frankly, baffling—to see other journalists simply turn space in their publications over to the conspiracy-mongers.

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