NEW HAMPSHIRE — Last Tuesday, the New America Foundation released a report (PDF) I co-authored with Georgia State’s Jason Reifler on how to most effectively combat misperceptions (summarized here at CJR). Two days later, some of the nation’s press corps decided to illustrate what not to do instead.

The occasion was the implausible claim by Joe Arpaio, the controversial and high-profile sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, that President Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery. The claim was covered by Politico, the Associated Press, the New York Post, The Arizona Republic, and discussed on the cable news networks.

Beyond the political freak show aspect of the event, what’s the news here? Obama’s long-form birth certificate was released last April, confirming the authenticity of his previously released “certification of live birth” and contemporaneous birth announcements in two newspapers. No credible evidence has emerged since then to raise any questions about his citizenship. So why would we believe Arpaio could possibly hold such evidence? As National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson wrote, “If you expect us to believe that there was a conspiracy — originating before the birth of Barack Obama — involving the Honolulu newspaper, local and state governments, the White House, foreign regimes, and National Review, and that said conspiracy remained undocumented until Sheriff Joe’s Maricopa County Irregulars sleuthed it out, you are asking a lot.” Would reporters cover an Arpaio press conference in which he claimed to provide evidence that the moon landing was faked?

In addition, Arpaio is not a credible messenger. He is known for media grandstanding and is cooperating with Obama’s Department of Justice after an investigation found “grave misconduct” in the sheriff’s office. In addition, it quickly emerged that the “lead investigator” in Arpaio’s “Cold Case Posse” is selling an e-book based on his “findings” that was co-authored with conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.

More importantly, coverage of Arpaio’s claims has the potential to do quite a bit of damage. As Reifler and I show in our report, repeating falsehoods can create a feeling of fluency that causes people to misperceive them as true over time. Also, if people come to believe Arpaio, the effects are difficult to undo. Misperceptions are difficult to correct (PDF) and can have persistent effects on subsequent opinions and attitudes.

These concerns are especially serious given the resilience of the birther myth. A recent YouGov survey conducted by MIT’s Adam Berinsky suggests that public doubts about Obama’s citizenship are on the rise again. Berinsky found that the percentage of Americans agreeing that Obama was born in this country increased from 55% before the release of the birth certificate to 67% immediately afterward (including an increase from 30% to 47% among Republicans). However, a late January poll he conducted found that belief that Obama was born in the US had receded to 59% overall and 27% among Republicans. Coverage of Arpaio’s claims has the potential to accelerate this trend.

With all that said, some journalists may believe it is necessary to cover Arpaio’s statements given his stature as a public official. For instance, The Arizona Republic’s J.J. Hensley told CJR’s Erika Fry last week that the newspaper was aware of the risks of reinforcing misperceptions but felt an obligation to report on the press conference given Arpaio’s prominence within the state. Hensley noted that it was not possible for him to provide technical refutation of Arpaio’s claims with the time or resources that were available to him so he focused on “the political theater aspect” of the event.

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.