3 ways journalists can deal with Donald Trump’s ‘alternative facts’

Honest journalism has a new competitor. It’s called fake news.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared on Fox News on Tuesday evening, comparing his “alternative facts” regarding Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd to reading different weather reports.

“The press was trying to make it seem like we were ignoring the facts when the facts are that sometimes… in the same way you can look at a weather report,” Spicer said. “One weather report comes out and says it’s going to be cloudy and the next one says there’s going to be light rain. No one lied to you.”

Spicer had told a press conference that the number of people who had attended and tuned into Trump’s was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period” — despite multiple side-by-side shots of Trump’s 2017 and Obama’s 2009 inauguration crowds indicating otherwise.

Spicer justified this claim by citing public transport rider statistics, which, he said, indicated that more people travelled on underground trains in Washington on Trump’s inauguration day than on Obama’s (WMATA, Washington’s public transport provider, later tweeted figures that proved him wrong).

Obviously, telling untruths to the public and reading differing weather reports are apples and oranges. Weather reports concern uncertain events in the future, whereas Spicer was reflecting on a past event for which there were photographs and viewership ratings.

With this in mind, here are three useful tips for journalists who wish to produce verified reports amid the proliferation of fake news.

1. Remember that not all data is gospel
The New York Times’ forecast on the night of the US elections.
The New York Times’ forecast on the night of the US elections. (Source: The New York Times)

A key reason the EU referendum and US election came as such a surprise was because journalists and pundits had, quite simply, misused data.

Forecasters, such as FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times Upshot and HuffPost Data, had put Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the US election between 70 to 99 percent — because many of them had relied too heavily on opinion polls, and forecasters had failed to explain fully the concept of margin of error.

In Spicer’s case, it seems obvious that WMATA data on rider statistics cannot be enough to prove that Trump had the largest crowd in the history of inauguration ceremonies, even if the numbers he stated were true.

What if more people had chosen to take the underground on Inauguration Day because half of the city had shut off its roads for the ceremony? And, even if those people had gone to Trump’s inauguration that day, where did the thousands more people photographed attending Obama’s inauguration come from?

2. If a news source says something fishy, find another one
Donald Trump signs executive orders surrounded by his nearest and dearest.
Donald Trump signs executive orders surrounded by his nearest and dearest. (Source: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann via Flickr)

Journalists are arbiters of truth, not political mouthpieces. Reporting claims by the White House, 10 Downing Street or any other powers-that-be is insufficient. If official sources won’t provide truthful quotes, journalists should feel free to punish them by ignoring the quotes and going elsewhere for the truth.

After Trump invited Sheri Dillon, a self-appointed federal tax lawyer to justify the then-president-elect’s plans to solve conflicts of interest over his business conglomerate, The New York Times invited government ethics experts to rebut Dillon’s remarks. The experts, which included former White House ethics lawyers and the current director of the Office of Government Ethics, found at least 15 flaws in her argument.

CNN also refused to air a White House press conference one day after Trump’s inauguration, revealing the cable network’s misgivings about broadcasting false statements to its viewers.

3. Call out untruths

On 2 January, veteran US journalist Dan Rather published a lengthy Facebook post calling for journalists to call out the Trump administration’s untruths as bald-faced lies. As the media industry blog Mediaite noted, major publications don’t tend to refer to inaccurate statements as lies, but rather as “unsubstantiated claims” or similarly euphemistic language.

Many major news outlets have also adhered to this line of thinking. Some have even gone as far as referencing Trump’s lies in their headlines, perhaps as a reflection of a 2016 study that estimated that 59 percent of URLs shared on Twitter had never been clicked.

On 21 January, The Huffington Post published a headline reading “Trump And His Press Secretary Flagrantly Lied On Their First Full Day In Office. That Matters.” A few days later, CNN published a column by Dean Obeidallah, a political satirist, titled “Dear team Trump, ‘alternative facts’ are lies.” The New York Times, on the same day, published a headline that referred to Trump’s statements as “lies”.

And, in perhaps the boldest headline of all, New York Magazine published a story back in December investigating Trump’s “War Against Facts”.

Of course, there has been wide debate among major news outlets regarding this new journalistic policy. Earlier this year, Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker advocated against referring to Trump’s statements as “lies”, noting:

To refrain from labeling leaders’ statements as lies is to support an unrelenting but not omniscient press, one that trusts readers’ judgments rather than presenting judgments to them. If we routinely make these kinds of judgments, readers would start to see our inevitably selective use of a moral censure as partisanship… We must be seen to be objective to continue to earn our readers’ trust.

A screenshot of New York Magazine's headline, "Donald Trump's War Against Facts".
A screenshot of New York Magazine’s headline, “Donald Trump’s War Against Facts”.

Ultimately, it’s up to individual journalists — and subeditors — what language they should use to frame statements that just aren’t true. But whatever you choose to do, it’s increasingly important to call out fake news and hoaxes, and to implement rigorous verification practices to do so. To quote Rather:

A lie, is a lie, is a lie. Journalism, as I was taught it, is a process of getting as close to some valid version of the truth as is humanly possible. And one of my definitions of news is information that the powerful don’t want you to know.

In other words, it’s time to call a spade a spade.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr under Creative Commons licence (original image adapted)

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