As President Donald Trump faces down a scandal that threatens to rip the foundation out from under his presidency, it’s no surprise that he is once again resorting to the kind of deflection that has served him well so far. In response to mounting evidence that Trump withheld foreign aid from Ukraine while he pushed the government to help him dig up dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, he and his allies have been relentless in their efforts to brand this as Biden’s scandal, not Trump’s.
As Media Matters’ Matt Gertz wrote yesterday about this strategy, “The only way they'll get away with it is if media outlets give them a hand.”
Unfortunately, several outlets have already helped the administration muddy the public’s understanding of this scandal with extraordinarily sloppy headlines.
“What’s The Ukraine Story About? Trump Says It’s Biden. Democrats Say It’s Trump,” read an NPR headline, one of the more egregious examples of both sides-ism. Though it was later updated to reflect a more accurate framing (“Trump And The Ukraine Call -- What Happened And What's Next?”), this original headline highlighted just one of the many ways our political press is broken.
The administration counts on mainstream media to spread its rebuttals, passively repeating Trump’s own propaganda to their audiences. And many times, media outlets oblige.
Earlier this year, a three-week Media Matters study found that Twitter accounts of major media outlets were broadcasting Trump’s false claims an average of 19 times per day. In nearly two-thirds of these cases, the outlets did nothing to note that the information was wrong.
Headlines matter. As a 2014 American Press Institute study found, just 40% of Americans read beyond the headline of a single article in the week prior to being surveyed. This makes the information contained in the headline itself so important. We have a president who continually lies and spreads propaganda, and social media has made it much easier to browse the news without ever clicking through to an article. In this unprecedented scenario, journalists need to rethink the way headlines are written and stories are framed.