• Froomkin on checking facts

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    Nieman Watchdog's Dan Froomkin on the failings of the media's factchecking:

    Then there's the fact that most fact-checkers feel obliged to provide balance, citing both side for misstatements even if they aren't vaguely in the same league – and even if some didn't actually come from the campaign. This creates a bizarre incentive system: If you're going to lie, you may as well make it a real whopper. Similarly, after it's been said once, there's no incentive not to keep saying it. Chances are, you'll only get zinged for it at most once per news outlet – even if you repeat it over and over again, long after it's been firmly "rebutted." In fact, it may well sneak back into the coverage, the rebuttal entirely forgotten.

    So what's our alternative? Well, one alternative would be to fight back – for the press to create some sort of hugely negative consequence for making stuff up. For instance, to make it the lede of the main story every time a candidate repeats an obviously untrue statement, rather than a one-time-only sidebar deep inside the paper or newscast. But my ever-triangulating colleagues in the media are loathe to do something that makes it look like we're taking sides, even if that side is accuracy.

    Froomkin has ideas about how his colleagues should proceed; take a look.

  • The NYT toasts Katie Couric today because why?

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    No reason apparently. Couric's ratings are still in the basement, she hasn't landed any big interviews and she was shut out of the fall debate schedule. But according to the Times, Couric "has been in the middle of things for the last few weeks." That's the news hook.

    Makes us wish the press would stop treating anchors like celebrities and report on actual media news instead.

  • Privileging the lie, continued

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    Today's Washington Post has an article by Shankar Vedantam about the difficulty of debunking misinformation:

    [A] series of new experiments show that misinformation can exercise a ghostly influence on people's minds after it has been debunked -- even among people who recognize it as misinformation. In some cases, correcting misinformation serves to increase the power of bad information.

    Vedantam wrote a similar article for the Post almost exactly a year ago:

    The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.


    The experiments do not show that denials are completely useless; if that were true, everyone would believe the myths. But the mind's bias does affect many people, especially those who want to believe the myth for their own reasons, or those who are only peripherally interested and are less likely to invest the time and effort needed to firmly grasp the facts.

    The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

    Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true. [emphasis added]

    The bolded portions of Vedantam's September 4, 2007 article should hold obvious lessons for journalists.

    First: it should never, ever be considered acceptable to quote a candidate or official making a false claim without noting its falsity. Reporters do this all the time, justifying it by saying they're just presenting both sides, or that they aren't making the false claim, they're just reporting it, or saying they corrected three other false claims in the article. That is not sufficient: if a journalist includes a false or misleading claim in their news report -- in any form -- without indicating that is false, they are actively helping to spread misinformation.

    Second: the way in which news reports debunk misinformation matters a great deal. If Candidate A lies about Candidate B, for example, the fact that Candidate A is lying should be the lede - otherwise the news report just drills the false claim into readers' and viewers' minds, allowing the misinformation to take hold before it is corrected. As I wrote in my column on Friday, the news media too often privileges lies rather than punishing them.

    Here's one example from last week: the Washington Post repeated the allegation that Barack Obama had made a sexist comment in five different paragraphs before it finally got around to indicating that the allegation was false (and even then, the Post did not say clearly that it was false.)

    Here's another from last week: CBS devoted 5 minutes to "lipstick," other McCain attacks before reporting that "lipstick" attack was bogus

    Much more here.

  • E.J. Dionne wonders

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Why, in light of the financial meltdown currently underway, the topic of the economy and Wall Street have been nearly invisible on the campaign trail. He, "can't believe how small a role our economic crisis is playing in the campaign coverage."

    Here's our hunch: The press doesn't care about that issue because it's not fun. Polls are fun to cover. VP picks are fun to speculate about. The chronic sickness of Wall Street? Not so fun so, prior to today, it was shoved into the shadows.

  • NYT plays dumb about McCain-Bush

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Writing in the Times, John Harwood looks at the tricky position McCain finds himself in with the need to separate himself from the an historically unpopular GOP president. Harwood looks around and suggests the last candidate who faced a similar quandary was Al Gore when he ran in 2000 in the shadow of Bill Clinton.

    Now, to the layman that comparison might seem absurd since at the time of the 2000 campaign Clinton's approval rating was above 50 percent and the country was still basking in peace in prosperity. But back in 2000 the press was obsessed with what it perceived to be Clinton's huge impeachment-related drag on the Gore ticket. The press chattered about the issue endlessly during the campaign. For many campaign reporters, Clinton legacy and role in the campaign was the single most important issue of the race. No joke.

    Fast forward eight years and boy, you sure don't hear much chatter about how Bush is going to impact the race do you? It's almost like an embarrassed press corps is just as anxious for Bush to leave the stage as McCain, isn't it?