What Journalists Can Do When The President Is A Liar

When Donald Trump is inaugurated later this month, the presidency will officially be held by an inveterate liar. And the way the press has covered Trump in the two months since his November election victory suggests that many journalists need to adjust their approach to address that reality before Trump takes office.

On New Year’s Eve, Trump cast doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian government-backed hackers intervened in the presidential election, suggesting that he would release evidence to the contrary early this week.

“I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove,” Trump told the press pool outside his Florida golf club. “So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.” Asked what precisely he knew that others didn’t, Trump responded, “You’ll find out on Tuesday or Wednesday.”

Trump’s comments promptly rocketed through the news cycle, with outlets reprinting his claims without skepticism or context. In a representative example, The New York Timesreport was headlined “Trump Promises a Revelation on Hacking.” But by Monday morning, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer was walking back the suggestion that Trump would release any new information this week.  

The president-elect's claim to have new information about Russian hacking was certainly startling. But why did journalists initially treat it as news and assume it must be true?

Journalists typically treat presidential statements as both newsworthy and generally trustworthy until proven otherwise. Trump is hardly the first president to dissimulate. But unlike his predecessors, Trump does not lie strategically or rarely. He lies habitually, on matters great and small. By following their typical practice and reporting the president-elect’s comments as both factual and significant, reporters are doing a disservice to their audience, which is left with the impression that what Trump has said is both true and substantive.

Sometimes, Trump is simply misstating the facts, as he did in touting a jobs “deal” with Carrier that won’t actually save the jobs he promised and one with Sprint that he had nothing to do with. Sometimes, he is promoting false conspiracy theories, as he did when he claimed that “millions of people” illegally voted in the election. Sometimes, he continues repeating the same claims after they have been proved false -- as he did with regard to President Obama’s birth certificate -- making it clear that he is lying deliberately. And when pressed by the media to explain dubious claims, he often promises explosive new information that never materializes in attempts to delay difficult confrontations, as he has done with his refusal to release his tax returns after originally saying he would, his response to questions about his business conflicts, and his comments about hacking.

Trump is exploiting a vulnerability in journalism. The pace of reporting has accelerated to the point where it is standard practice for journalists to write up a prominent politician’s comments immediately, and assess what those comments mean in later pieces. That doesn’t work with Trump.

When Trump offers a statement, the press writes up his comments with headlines and stories favorable to the president-elect only to, almost inevitably, discover after additional reporting that Trump’s initial claims were false. Readers and viewers are misled by the initial coverage and are left unable to accurately judge the policy implications of Trump’s remarks. Millions of Americans end up supporting Trump’s jobs “deals” following misleading early reports, or believing his lies about illegal voters.

Or Trump will respond to a burgeoning controversy by promising to release documents or give press conferences that support his positions. Reporters will treat that declaration of forthcoming news as itself newsworthy, but the promise is ultimately unfulfilled. Trump succeeds in muddying the waters and shifting the news cycle.

Journalists are aware that Trump’s statements are less trustworthy than those of other politicians. Major news outlets and fact-checkers that reviewed Trump’s campaign statements have stated in the strongest terms that Trump spews falsehoods at an unprecedented rate for American politics.

The New York Times even took the unusual step of declaring in a front-page headline that Trump’s statements about President Obama’s birth certificate were a “lie.” Times Editor-in-Chief Dean Baquet explained that Trump’s behavior had required the paper to change its approach and accurately describe Trump’s “demonstrably false” statements as lies.

He was right. But Trump’s behavior has not changed since his election, so journalists cannot allow themselves to return to their usual approach to presidential coverage; rather, they must develop new methods to avoid privileging his lies.

Since Trump frequently lies, journalists should be extremely wary of headlines and social media posts that simply restate his comments. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent suggests two smart rules of thumb: “If the headline does not convey the fact that Trump’s claim is in question or open to doubt, based on the known facts, then it is insufficiently informative,” and, “If the known facts show that his claims are false or outright lies, the headline should clearly indicate that, too.”

Given the need to vet Trump’s comments, Poynter’s Kelly McBride urges reporters to slow down and prioritize providing context for his statements over publishing Trump’s remarks quickly. That seems especially worthwhile when Trump is promising to provide information about a controversy some time in the future.

Journalists must also be willing to call Trump’s statements lies where appropriate. If they don’t, as Sargent warns, “we risk enabling Trump’s apparent efforts to obliterate the possibility of agreement on shared reality.”

Moreover, in cases where Trump is clearly lying, reporters should not privilege the lie by adopting the false claim as the basis of their report and framing it as a question of whether his statement was accurate. That approach helps Trump spread the false claim and leaves readers and viewers with the takeaway that there is a controversy around his comments. They should instead frame their stories -- including their headlines -- around the reality that the president-elect is not telling the truth, explaining that this latest claim is part of a pattern. That method punishes the falsehood and provides the best chance of leaving the audience with the truth.

Some journalists will oppose the need for such shifts in approach because they are worried about the optics of seeming overly critical of the president.

Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker championed this position in a Sunday appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. Asked if his paper would be willing to refer to some inaccurate Trump statements as lies, Baker said it would not use that word because “I think you run the risk that you look like you are, like you’re not being objective.”

As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer noted, this approach suggests that Baker believes it is not “objectivity that matters, but the *appearance* of objectivity.” Dan Rather wrote of the “deeply disturbing” comments: “It is not the proper role of journalists to meet lies -- especially from someone of Mr. Trump’s stature and power -- by hiding behind semantics and euphemisms. Our role is to call it as we see it, based on solid reporting. When something is, in fact, a demonstrable lie, it is our responsibility to say so.”

Baker isn’t alone. There is an ongoing debate in newsrooms about whether to accurately call Trump a liar -- even at the Times, which did so back in September. At the time, public editor Liz Spayd agreed that the paper was justified in using such language to refer to Trump’s birther lies, but warned that “The Times should use this term rarely” because “its power in political warfare has so freighted the word that its mere appearance on news pages, however factually accurate, feels partisan.” Again, that’s an argument that optics outweigh accurate information.

Spayd appears to have won the argument. While the paper’s editorial board and columnists still regularly refer to Trump as a liar and call his statements lies, the Times’ news section has done so only twice since Spayd’s piece came out -- both times in articles that referenced Trump’s birther lies, which were published the same week.

Trump didn’t stop lying in September. But if the press doesn’t incorporate the lessons of the campaign and refuses to treat his statements with skepticism and call them out as lies when appropriate, its audience will pay the price.