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Major news outlets have repeatedly failed to accurately portray President Donald Trump’s misleading and false claims in their headlines, including just his comments without noting that they’re false or without including crucial context. But some experts have advice for how journalists can write headlines that better inform their readers about the president’s claims and allegations.
Many news organizations have fallen into the lazy trap of simply repeating whatever Trump claims in their headlines, without indicating whether it’s true or including necessary context. In fact, many of the country’s most prominent mainstream media outlets have been guilty of this practice. Here are some examples in their original format (some have since changed):
The first two failed to contextualize Trump’s statements, specifically failing to note that Trump had for years perpetuated the falsehood that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., and that Ford had never planned to move its Kentucky plant, only to shift a fraction of its production. The last two headlines gave credence to Trump’s claims despite a total lack of evidence.
Why is it important that headlines about Trump fully inform readers about what he says and does? Because a 2014 study by the Media Insight Project revealed that around 60 percent of American news consumers read only news headlines. When that many readers don’t go beyond the headline, including clarifying details only in the body of the piece is simply insufficient, leaving many people uninformed about the truth -- or lack thereof -- behind Trump’s claims.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, discussed on CNN’s Reliable Sources the dilemma that Trump’s spurious claims create for journalists, and explained the need for headlines to make it clear when his comments lack proof:
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: [Trump] creates a dilemma for journalists because ordinarily journalists would say, "The president said," then would look for the alternative, then look for the documentation and play through that narrative. But when there's no proof, journalists have to find a way in the headline to say, "Without proof, Trump alleges" so that we don't put in place the allegation as if it has some legitimacy. Rather, we should be saying, “Where's the proof?” What Trump specializes in is shifting the burden of proof. Making a charge with no evidence and then asking for an investigation shifts the burden of proof. Now someone is supposed to disprove an unproven allegation.
Jim Rutenberg, a media columnist for The New York Times, offered similar input on Fox News’ MediaBuzz when asked how to frame Trump’s latest evidence-free allegation that Obama wiretapped him:
JIM RUTENBERG: Here is this amazing, huge allegation. So we need to drive for evidence. And so if there isn't any, we need to say it. Because if you do that headline -- and this is a big debate, you’ll see it unfold on Twitter and kind of publicly and I'm sure other shows like this one -- is if you do that headline, “President Trump accuses predecessor of spying on him,” that's a very flat statement. And if there’s no evidence, I think you do have to say there’s no evidence.
And George Lakoff, a retired University of California, Berkeley cognitive science and linguistics professor, gave a more in-depth explanation on Reliable Sources on how to best report on Trump’s comments -- in short, state the truth before introducing Trump’s claim or quote:
GEORGE LAKOFF: Well first of all, you do need the facts, but you need to know how to present those facts because if you just negate what [Trump’s] saying, you're going to just strengthen him. So, remember, Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook,” and people thought of him as a crook. I wrote a book called Don't Think of an Elephant. It makes you think of an elephant. If you say -- repeat what Donald Trump says, and then negate it and say “no,” and then you repeat what he says and say it's false, what you're doing is strengthening that, because in your brain, the neural circuits have to activate what you are negating in order to negate it, and that strengthens what you're negating. So every time you negate it, you help the other side.
What you can do is the opposite. What Trump is doing in these cases is diverting attention from real issues. Real issues like Russia, for example. Like his foreign policy, like his business connections, and on and on. Lots of real issues that he's diverting attention from. What you can do in reporting this is talk first about the truth about what he's diverting attention from, the real issues. Then go and say, “Here’s what he said in his tweet because his tweet is strategic, trying to divert attention.” Then you can say, “This is an attempt to divert attention from this and it's false. Here is why it's false. Let's go back to the real issues,” and you go on. With about 30 seconds on Trump, rather than all the time on Trump. The more time you spend on Trump on putting him out there, the more you help him.
BRIAN STELTER (HOST): I'll take an example from that sound bite we just played. We played the president talking about Obamacare. So you're saying the better way to handle this is to do the following: to say Obamacare supports 22 million people, but President Trump today said very few people have Obamacare. Is that the better way?
LAKOFF: Well, the fact is that it's false. And what he's trying to do is divert attention from the truth -- again. And that's exactly what you say. When you report it, you point out first, frame first, that Obamacare took care of 22 million people, more than were before. That attempts to get rid of it would get rid of care for many millions of people. Then you can say, “But the president, diverting attention from this, said the following.” Then you give his quote, and you say, “He missed, of course, the fact that 22 million people is not a few number of people.”
LAKOFF: You frame first. You frame with the truth first. Your job is to present the truth for the public good. And you do it first because if he gets to frame it first, that's how people understand the situation.
The New York Times’ media columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote that while Sean Hannity uses his radio and television shows to “blare Mr. Trump’s message relentlessly” as he “veers into the role of adviser,” the last two weeks have shown signs of “the start of a possible reckoning within the conservative media” as others criticize Hannity for his Trump shilling.
Hannity has repeatedly used his platforms on Fox News and talk radio to boost Trump by pushing the widely debunked claim that Donald Trump opposed the Iraq invasion before the war, repeating false conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health, and other assorted false claims. According to Rutenberg, Hannity is “work[ing] in the full service of his candidate without having to abide by journalism’s general requirements for substantiation and prohibitions against, say, regularly sharing advice with political campaigns.” Rutenberg reported that “Hannity had for months peppered Mr. Trump, his family members and advisers with suggestions on strategy and messaging,” and that some in the Trump camp “believed Mr. Hannity was behaving as if he wanted a role in a possible Trump administration,” which Hannity denied.
Rutenberg also explained that some other conservative media figures have turned to criticizing Hannity over his repeated falsehoods in support of Trump, with Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens lamenting that Hannity is contributing to a national debate that’s “divorced from reality.” Rutenberg also cited complaints from Wisconson talk radio host Charlie Sykes, who told Politico, “I feel dumber every time I listen to Sean Hannity. I don’t want to be that guy.”
From Rutenberg’s August 21 column in The New York Times:
Mr. Hannity uses his show on the nation’s most-watched cable news network to blare Mr. Trump’s message relentlessly — giving Mr. Trump the kind of promotional television exposure even a billionaire can’t afford for long.
But Mr. Hannity is not only Mr. Trump’s biggest media booster; he also veers into the role of adviser. Several people I’ve spoken with over the last couple of weeks said Mr. Hannity had for months peppered Mr. Trump, his family members and advisers with suggestions on strategy and messaging.
So involved is Mr. Hannity that three separate denizens of the hall of mirrors that is Trump World told me they believed Mr. Hannity was behaving as if he wanted a role in a possible Trump administration — something he denied to me as laughable and contractually prohibitive in an interview on Friday.
Mr. Hannity is unapologetic about his aim. “I’m not hiding the fact that I want Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States.” After all, he says, “I never claimed to be a journalist.”
Mr. Hannity’s show has all the trappings of traditional television news — the anchor desk, the graphics and the patina of authority that comes with being part of a news organization that also employs serious-minded journalists like Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly.
But because Mr. Hannity is “not a journalist,” he apparently feels free to work in the full service of his candidate without having to abide by journalism’s general requirements for substantiation and prohibitions against, say, regularly sharing advice with political campaigns.
That’s the ultimate result of the hyperpoliticized approach Mr. Hannity and so many others use in today’s more stridently ideological media: A fact is dismissed as false when it doesn’t fit the preferred political narrative.
But while this informational nihilism appears to have hit a new high, the last two weeks have signaled the start of a possible reckoning within the conservative media.
First there was The Wall Street Journal’s deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens, who, after trading insults with Mr. Hannity over Mr. Trump, said on the MSNBC show “Morning Joe” that “too much of the Republican Party became an echo chamber of itself.”
Those who spend an inordinate amount of time “listening to certain cable shows” and inhaling the conspiracy theories promoted on “certain fringes of the internet,’’ he said, wind up in a debate that’s “divorced from reality.”
Then there was the conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, who lamented in an interview with the Business Insider politics editor Oliver Darcy, “We have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media.”
That criticism was often warranted, Mr. Sykes said. (Just take a look at the decision by the former Clinton White House aide and current ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos to give some $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation, for which he apologized last year.) But, as Mr. Sykes said, “At a certain point, you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there.” Therefore any attempt to debunk a falsehood by Mr. Trump, he said, becomes hopeless.
Mr. Hannity told me his support for Mr. Trump makes him “more honest” than mainstream reporters who hide their biases. It turns out even “honesty” is a relative concept these days. For some people more than others.
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Chuck Todd, host of NBC's Sunday morning political talk show, Meet the Press, told The New York Times he will no longer allow Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump to call in to the show in lieu of appearing on camera, taking away a media advantage that has been solely granted to Trump thus far this campaign season.
Trump has dominated the Sunday morning political talk shows since the beginning of 2015, appearing more than any other candidate, (63 times) including 28 interviews by phone -- a privilege the shows have not allowed any of the other four remaining presidential candidates. Media critics, who say the format gives Trump an upper hand, have called out the practice noting that allowing him to interview by phone "is a signal of the extent to which the television cable networks contort themselves to accommodate Trump."
According to a March 20 New York Times column, NBC's Chuck Todd told The Times' Jim Rutenberg that he "will no longer allow Mr. Trump to do prescheduled interviews by phone." Rutenberg noted that Fox's Chris Wallace has also refused to allow Trump to phone in. From the article:
Then there are the Sunday morning public affairs programs. For decades they have served as proving grounds where candidates must show up on camera, ideally in person, to handle questions without aides slipping them notes, their facial reactions and body language on full display. It's why the programs were named "Face the Nation" and "Meet the Press" -- not "Call the Nation" or "Phone the Press."
And yet, as the campaign began in earnest, all of the shows went along with Mr. Trump's insistence that he "appear" by phone -- all except one, "Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace."
"I just thought even if we took a ratings hit -- and to some degree we did -- it was a line worth holding," Mr. Wallace told me.
On Friday, Chuck Todd, the moderator of "Meet the Press," told me he had only grudgingly allowed Mr. Trump to call in to his show earlier in the campaign, determining that he would rather have Mr. Trump take questions via phone than not at all.
Now, Mr. Todd said, he will no longer allow Mr. Trump to do prescheduled interviews by phone on the NBC program. And CNN told me it would think twice before giving full coverage to a Trump news conference that devolves into an infomercial.
I thought I might be witnessing a midcampaign course correction. But then I tuned in to "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" on ABC and there was Mr. Trump, or, that is, his disembodied voice.
The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg and Jackie Calmes lead off their article today by writing:
The White House on Monday started a new Web site to fight questionable but potentially damaging charges that President Obama's proposed overhaul of the nation's health care system would inevitably lead to "socialized medicine," "rationed care" and even forced euthanasia for the elderly.
But in introducing the Web site, White House officials were tacitly acknowledging a difficult reality: they are suddenly at risk of losing control of the public debate over a signature issue for Mr. Obama and are now playing defense in a way they have not since last year's campaign.
That's one way to interpret the White House's decision to roll out their new website debunking health care smears. Here's another: The White House is doing it because they realize that the media is unwilling or unable to call those smears false, instead – just to pull an example out of thin air – referring to misleading-to-ridiculous claims that Democratic proposals "would inevitably lead to 'socialized medicine,' 'rationed care' and even forced euthanasia for the elderly" as "questionable but potentially damaging charges."
What makes this particular case even more absurd is that just yesterday, the Times published "A Primer on the Details of Health Care Reform." Unfortunately, Rutenberg and Calmes don't seem to have read it.
If they had, they might have written that claims that health care reform would lead to "socialized medicine" "seem overblown" because "[m]ajor versions of the legislation all rely heavily on a continuation of private health plans" and the CBO has found that under the House bill, 3 million more people would have employer-sponsored insurance in 2016 than would be expected under current law. They also might have called the "euthanasia" claims "unfounded" or noted that the AARP says they're "flat-out lies."
But instead, we get "questionable but potentially damaging." The claims might be true; they might not be? Who can say? What we can say is that repeating them without debunking them – as we just did in our article in The New York Times -- could hurt reform's chances.
As Jamison noted in June:
Following up on my post this morning about combating misinformation by eliminating the incentives for lying, another stumbling block is that a lot of reporters and news organizations seem to think it is adequate to tell the truth once.
That is, if a politician runs around saying something that isn't true -- like that she said "thanks but no thanks" to "bridge to nowhere" funding -- many news organizations will debunk the false claim once. But then they'll go right on quoting the false claim when it is made again and again, without bothering to point out that it is false. And when challenged on this, they'll point out that they did debunk it, three weeks ago.
That isn't good enough, for reasons that should be incredibly obvious. It isn't good enough to tell the truth once.
The Times told the truth yesterday. Today, they don't seem to know what the truth is. Unfortunately for them, their job is to tell the truth every day.