Contrary to Hemingway’s assertions, however, the early coverage typically left the impression that conservative groups were the only ones being selected for scrutiny due to their names or political affiliations. News articles after the initial disclosure emphasized that the IRS had “singled out” or was “targeting” conservative groups using keywords. This impression was reinforced by the initial report from the Treasury Department’s inspector general, which reportedly “focused almost exclusively” on groups affiliated with the Tea Party movement. If such a procedure had only been directed at conservative groups, the evidence that the IRS was giving unfair or disproportionate scrutiny would be clear.

Later revelations that many types of groups, including liberal ones, were selected for targeting based on keywords—as the inspector general eventually conceded—shifted the direction of the story. Without clear evidence that the procedure was used to target conservatives for political reasons or that it was directed by the White House, the charges are far less explosive. As a result, the media’s attention shifted elsewhere, as I showed, giving the issue little coverage and leaving the public with a mistaken impression of the state of the evidence.

This critique should not be viewed as a defense of the White House or its position on the controversy. Indeed, my piece could be read as a call for more coverage, not less. As Hemingway notes, though the IRS keyword lists included liberal and non-political terms like “open source,” data from the inspector general and Republican staff on the House Ways and Means Committee suggests liberal groups may have been less likely to be selected for follow-up or to receive intense scrutiny. If such a discrepancy were found to be attributable to political factors, it would be a matter of serious public concern—precisely the kind that reporters should investigate!

However, the lingering possibility that misconduct may yet be uncovered does not excuse the way that outlets stopped devoting sustained coverage to the story, which presumably left most readers with a simplistic—and perhaps incorrect—understanding of events. Journalists need to do a better job cleaning up their own messes.

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