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Sun Feb 19, 2017, 10:39 AM


Can journalists debunk Trumps lies without amplifying them? Its challenging but not impossible

Journalists must report on the administration's many falsehoods — and find a way to do so that won’t backfire


With the Trump administration’s mendacity, journalists need to be especially careful about not accidentally elevating lies through the creation of articles intended to debunk them. It may seem helpful to run a story headlined “Murder Rates Not at Historic Levels” or “Voter Fraud Not Widespread.” But those kinds of stories may lead people to think more about murder and voter fraud than they did before, prompting them to worry more about such issues — even though the point of the articles is that they should worry less.

Thorson suggested that journalists should focus more on what politicians are doing than what they’re saying. For instance, instead of writing a story focusing on Trump’s false statements about the murder rate, they ought to describe how Trump is trying to create a police state. Then within the text, they could devote a paragraph to the way the administration uses lies to advance unsavory goals.

Journalism is very quote-centric because journalists are interested in the truth. The glory of obtaining a quote from someone interviewed on the public record is that it is, in most cases, indisputably true and easily verified, especially in an age when digital records exist for almost everything. Statistics, policy analysis, ideology and many other things are easy for politicians and their lackeys to distort and quibble over. But a quote — what someone said — has a life of its own.

Unfortunately, that’s just what Trump and his team are counting on when they spin outrageous falsehoods: The quotes will stand out and a somber debunking of the lies might not register with an audience.

Because of this, journalists may to rethink their reliance on quotes, a heretical notion for many. When a quote is a lie, journalists should think about not using it at all. If the lie needs to be cited, it should be buried deep within the story, under the debunking and not put in the headline or the first paragraph. If we learn not to lead with the lies, maybe they will lose some of their stickiness.


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