In that case, it is important to present Arpaio’s statements in a larger context that make clear both the overwhelming weight of the evidence documenting Obama’s citizenship and the sheriff’s highly questionable credibility as an investigator. For instance, Hensley described the event as “part press conference, part political rally and all conspiracy theory” in his lede and noted questions about whether “a group of retirees working for a sheriff who has multiple conflicts with the White House [can] be trusted to conduct an impartial investigation.” The Associated Press’s Jacques Billeaud was similarly skeptical, noting Arpaio’s “legal troubles” and describing the birther movement’s claims as “a controversy that has been widely debunked but which remains alive in the eyes of some conservatives.”

By contrast, Politico’s Tim Mak filed a story that violates all of the best practices described above. The story was given a straight news headline (“Joe Arpaio on Obama’s birth certificate: It may be fake”) and lede (“Arpaio said Thursday that his investigation has found there is reason to believe that President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, released by the White House last year, was a forgery”) that are likely to increase the familiarity and accessibility of birther claims among readers. Only at the end of his story does Mak bother to acknowledge the DOJ report into Arpaio’s practices and the fact that birther claims have been “widely debunked.” (Mak did not respond to CJR’s email request for comment).

Ultimately, journalists have to exercise their judgment in deciding when to cover misleading claims. The burden of proof should be placed on those who would provide coverage. Why, for instance, should reporters outside Arizona cover Arpaio’s nonsense? What public interest is served by doing so? In the cases in which reporters do feel obliged to provide coverage, it is vital that they not act as stenographers, like Politico’s Mak did, for the public officials who are promoting misinformation. When the weight of the evidence is overwhelming in favor of a given fact, any news report on claims to the contrary should emphasize the larger factual context while minimizing the repetition of potentially misleading claims. Covering the self-proclaimed world’s toughest sheriff without misleading readers shouldn’t be so tough.


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