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How Journalists Should Go Beyond Fact-Checking Trump’s Routine Lies and Conspiracy Theories

| December 6, 2016

Donald Trump in his labyrinth. (Michael Hogan)

Donald Trump in his labyrinth. (Michael Hogan)

All the way back in March, Dartmouth political science professor Brendan Nyhan wrote a prescient tweetstorm about how journalists and others should call out Donald Trump’s routine violation of modern norms of democratic discourse. ProPublica’s Eric Umansky sat down with Nyhan, who is also a contributor to the New York Times’ Upshot, to talk about what journalists should treat as newsworthy now that Trump is about to enter office.


The discussion follows another recent podcast, where we talked with Russian American journalist Masha Gessen about how journalists need to begin imagining the unimaginable.

A few highlights from our discussion:

Umansky: How should we respond to fake news from the president-elect?

Nyhan: I don’t think journalists should give up on, or refrain from, fact-checking when the president-elect of the United States says something that is false. It’s critical to set the record straight, especially when it’s about a consequential policy issue.

At the same time, journalists obviously run the risk of being manipulated to chase various shiny objects and steer the debate towards topics that the president-elect would like to focus on and away from ones he would like to avoid. Trump’s Twitter can’t become the assignment desk of the national media.

The burden of proof can’t be on the media to disprove every crazy claim that the president-elect makes. The story here is the president-elect yet again made a baseless claim. That is the story. The story is that the president-elect is more factually irresponsible than any political leader in the United States in memory. That’s the story. The details of exactly how this particular claim is false are really, at some point, a second-order concern.

These stories have to de-emphasize the claim itself, emphasize the news value of the president-elect being so widely irresponsible.

proUmansky: What you’re saying is it’s not the lie, it’s the import of the lie. In terms of Trump’s baseless claim of 3 million illegal votes, it struck me that there was a spectrum of coverage: There were some early headlines that didn’t even knock down the claim. Then you had coverage noting that Trump had no evidence. But finally, there was a third category of coverage that flagged Trump’s claim as not merely incorrect but as remarkable and unmoored. That’s what the Washington Post did, calling it a conspiracy theory right in the headline.

Nyhan: I think that’s exactly the correct typology. First, it’s simply reprinting the claim. CBS News had an example that circulated most widely of what you’re talking about there. Some poor, recent college graduate was assigned to type up what Trump said within minutes of it happening, and it was written up in a way that just amplified the misinformation. A second set of stories said Trump, without evidence, said X, but that is also a confusing way to present information, when the claim is almost certainly false.

It’s possible, of course, that Trump could magically materialize with evidence of millions of illegal votes, but it’s contrary to everything we know about the electoral system. Imagine Trump says, “Lizard people are engaging in secret conspiracies to run the United States.” Would we write the headline, “Trump, without evidence, says lizard people control the United States”? No. There still has to be judgment exercise about whether “without evidence” is the right standard to apply to claims that are almost surely false and for which no credible evidence has been supplied.

The correct response exactly that you’re indicating is that third category of stories that indicates that this is a conspiracy theory. It’s false to the best of everyone’s knowledge who studied the issue. It’s widespread and part of this larger effort to create false perceptions of millions of illegal votes and widespread vote fraud that’s never been documented.

Umansky: How about we call it the taxonomy of truth?

Nyhan: Yes, we need catchy names for all this. I’m assigning that to ProPublica.

–Eric Umansky, ProPublica

The full discussion is below.

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26 Responses for “How Journalists Should Go Beyond Fact-Checking Trump’s Routine Lies and Conspiracy Theories”

  1. CJ Vetere says:

    ‘If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep your healthcare plan.” “Your healthcare premiums will decrease by $2500 per year.” And the list goes on and on and on, etc.

  2. PCer says:

    For the next 4 years (or until he is impeached, whichever comes first) my go to line will be… “It’s Trumps fault”. I may play it up with, “I blame Trump”.

  3. Knightwatch says:

    Trump has not just lowered the bar for presidential qualifications and expectations, he has eliminated the bar. He has dragged down and disgraced the office of the president, and this country may not recover for a generation. We’ve always had certain expectations of our presidents – thoughtful and disciplined approach to issues, deliberative decision-making, statesmanship, broad knowledge of the principles of governance, a reassuring moral and ethical compass. Trump has none, NONE of these qualities.

    Forevermore in America, we can no longer expect “presidential” qualities in our presidents. Forevermore, truth is inconsequential, unnecessary, even reviled. Forevermore, serial sexual predators, liars, bullies and braggarts, racists, xenophobes and misogynists are as qualified to become president as, well, a Washington, a Lincoln or a Roosevelt. We no longer have any qualifications, standards, expectations or a lofty vision of what a president should be.

    I condemn Republicans – no, I curse them – for bringing America down to the level of a third-world banana republic. An idiocracy. I can only hope the free media, so long as it remains free, will question, and dig, and uncover and publish the unfettered truth. I hope. But then, a few years into Trump’s nightmare rule, who’ll decide what’s truth? Who will listen, or watch, or read?

  4. wishful thinking says:

    Donald Trump is our President elect and does not deserve to be tried and convicted before he even takes office…
    You bet there are illegal and dead voters. We knew about them and caught some ( nobody had to dig up any graves) red handed – oops ‘blue handed’.
    For anyone to even try to claim that our voting system nation wide is honest and honorable is beyinod ludicrous since many states have no requirements at all – Until our voting system is uniform, nationwide with proof of citizenship required and absentee voting be restricted to those who are ill – the military – or who can prove they will not be in town on election day to vote in person we can expect the list of illegal and dead voters to continue.
    I caught more than one as a ‘poll watcher’ as far back as 1981… Trump hopefully will turn out to be an excellent president. If not – the voters can throw him out in 2020 – Biden has already announced he is going to run !

  5. Richard Smith says:

    How many “journalist’s” actually reported FACTS about Trump during the primary and the presidential campaign’s? In Fact how many “journalist’s” and news stations reported on ANY facts at all versus the rhetoric that they wanted to spew to the American public?

    Do you people really think that American people are STUPID? Most of you who think they are journalists should quit your jobs because a majority of Americans will no longer believe anything you have to say. As far as I can tell you are ALL a bunch of liars just like our current POTUS and his administration.

    Go get a real job!

  6. Knightwatch says:

    Richard, yes, emphatically yes! I do think almost half of Americans are stupid. The undeniable proof… they voted for Trump.

    Nothing more to be said.

  7. PCer says:

    Trump can fact check for Trump. It will be tremendous. There will be a lot of bigly words.

  8. PCer says:

    Prove it

  9. Joan says:

    An excellent article with resources we should all consider reading and listening to. This is not a popularity contest. Our democracy is at stake.

  10. Mark says:

    Yes Knightwatch you are correct. Half of the American population is stupid, you just have the wrong half identified.

  11. snapperhead says:

    A majority of the billions of people on this planet believe there’s some magical mystery man that lives up in the sky and watches everything you do every second of the day. Which is weird to me because I don’t want some dude watch me take a dump or bang the ol’ lady. Anyone that would believe in a “God” wouldn’t be to hard for Trump to persuade.-Two Corinthians 3:17

  12. woodchuck says:

    Would we fact check Hiliary if she won?Doubtful.

  13. Sherry says:

    I like this article. . . there are some points well made!

    Truth is, there are still so many ridiculous conspiracy theories thrown out there by YOUR president (electoral college only) elect. . . who actually lost the popular vote by over 2 million. Why do you suppose he chose to erroneously spout that 3 million votes were illegal? Why did he completely “make up” that particular number? Ahhhhh. . . because he wants his vombied followers to believe what he tells himself every day in his big ole golden mirror. . . he won by 1 million votes. Forever the megalomaniac narcissist . . . oh yeah and sexual predator. All you supporters should be soooooo proud!

  14. r&r says:

    You lost!! Suck it up. The bar was lowered to the ground when Obama was elected. Half the voters are stupid they elected Obama.

  15. footballen says:

    Snapperhead you make it very clear you too are on the left and all Trump voters are stupid, actually I believe you inference is that anyone who is not an atheist is stupid. You and knightwatcher should be our leaders. Not

  16. Edith Campins says:

    The fact that sites such as Breibart, Infowars, Newsmax, etc., exist is proof that there is a segment of the population that wants to be lied to. Who buys all those issues of the National Enquirer at the supermarket?

    Trump has forever lowered the standard for the US presidency and that is something everyone should be angry about. His supporters keep blaming the media when all the media has done is report his words and actions. They want to have a scapegoat to blame for his lies.

    Three million illegal voters? Based on what facts? What evidence? What proof? Of course there are irregularities in every election. There will always be. Is there massive voter fraud? No.

  17. Richard Smith says:

    NO, there wasn’t any massive voter fraud. But the left now thinks there is due to the media reporting so much garbage about Trump and nothing about lying Hillary. After all they thought they had the election all wrapped up weeks before the vote with no path for Trump to get to 270 electoral votes. Boy did they get a surprise! Goes to show you that the left wing media should stick to reporting FACTS instead of their rhetoric and narrative. I guess that is why Fox News is the number one rated cable news network in the country for being Fair & Balanced.

  18. Sherry says:

    @ Richard Smith.. . . really?

    If you actually care about facts, please take a look at this article from Politifact.com. . . where their analysis says that FOX’s facts are MOSTLY FALSE, FALSE or PANTS ON FIRE a whopping 58% of the time! Where as CNN is at 22%. . . .
    http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/article/2014/sep/16/fact-checking-fox-msnbc-and-cnn-punditfacts-networ/

  19. Richard Smith says:

    @ Sherry……yes REALLY. Obviously you don’t Google very much. CNN is now at the bottom of the broadcast news totem pole after they have misled and attempted to fill the American public with so much of their personal rhetoric and narrative versus reality. PLUS one of their own, Donna Brazile, was caught with her pants down helping crooked Hillary. Those two ladies deserve each other and deserve everything they ended up with for their lying underhanded left wing political crap.

    From Google – National Poll done on march 9, 2015 “The poll found that more Democrats trust CNN (32 percent) and NBC News (15 percent) than MSNBC (14 percent, tied with CBS News). Fox News’ dominance puts its frequent complaints about the “mainstream media” into perspective. For millions of Americans, Fox News is the mainstream media.”

    The KEY word is DEMOCRATS. After all they have to stick together even when they are poor losers.

  20. Outsider says:

    The “bar” was set for the presidency over two centuries ago. You basically have to be 35 years old and a natural born citizen of the United States. That’s it. I’m sorry if this comes as a surprise to those of you who feel it necessary to continually remind us all of how educated and worldly you are, but if you were so educated, you would already know this.

  21. Sherry says:

    @ Outsider. . . so are you really saying that we should throw all standards of morality, character, and intelligence/education out the window and scrape the bottom of the barrel to allow ANYONE over 35 who was born on US soil to be President of our country? How about Trump:

    1. Sexual Predators: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=trumps+video+2005&view=detail&mid=F35BCD75EE7C9D06A25FF35BCD75EE7C9D06A25F&FORM=VIRE

    2. Fraudulent Con Men: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/432010/trump-university-scam

    3. An Accused Rapist: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/lawsuit-accusing-trump-raping-girl-13-december-hearing-article-1.2828413

    4. A Complete Lier:http://www.politifact.com/personalities/donald-trump/

    Need More. . . I have plenty!

    It doesn’t take an educated person to know RIGHT from absolutely WRONG!

  22. The Ghost of America says:

    eh, why bother? this election cycle has proven that character doesn’t matter, knowledge doesn’t matter, statesmanship doesn’t matter, and frankly, facts don’t matter. none of the people that voted for trump care if he raped a 13 year old, or if he’s easily manipulated, or has major mental issues. they only cared that he wasn’t a company man like Hillary or any of the other candidates fielded by the GOP. why should they care about facts or fact checking?

  23. gmath55 says:

    Hillary a company man? LOL. I thought she was a woman. Also, she never was a company person. LOL. A liar, yes! Chelsea Clinton not even Bill’s and Hillary’s child. What do you call that? Also, Bill has a black son. What do you call that?

  24. Katie Semore says:

    Ghost of America, truer words never appeared here.

  25. Richard Smith says:

    As I read various posts from both sides of the aisle I would like to point out that BOTH presidential candidates ARE liars regarding many things in their past and present. Have you ever seen any political person who hasn’t lied? Heck they are groomed from the local political level to become EXPERT liars by the time they reach the federal level. The biggest difference between HRC and DJT is Trump is not beholding to any special interest group whereas a majority of HRC campaign money came from special interest. groups. Trump has got one goal for America, that is to return the US to the super power that it once was along with making it a safe place to live where people respect the laws, law enforcement people and put people back to work by returning lost jobs to America. Trust me HRC could have cared less about what is best for America versus trying to overthrow the leaders of other countries to accomplish HER goals just the same as our current POTUS has done for the past 8 years. The LAST thing we need is a president to travel around the world apologizing for our actions and giving Billions of ransom dollars to them for aid. There are useful purposes for that money right here at home versus propping up countries that end up using the money to buy weapons to kill us and our soldiers.

  26. Sherry says:

    @Richard Smith. . . I’ll take actual analysis and “fact” checking, over popularity polls, anytime. . . thank you!

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