Monday, November 28, 2016

Dear Daily Star: An Unsubstantiated Claim Is Not a Citation

Posted By on Mon, Nov 28, 2016 at 2:05 PM

click to enlarge claim_cite_definitions.jpg
I opened my copy of the Star this morning and found this misleading headline:
Trump assails recount, cites illegal voting
Then I read the first paragraph of the Associated Press story:
President-elect Donald Trump claimed without evidence Sunday that “millions” voted illegally in the national election, scoffing at Hillary Clinton’s nearly 2 million edge in the popular vote and returning to his campaign mantra of a rigged race even as he prepares to enter the White House.
The AP got it right: Trump "claimed without evidence" that people voted illegally. The Star headline got it wrong by writing that Trump "cites illegal voting." "Cites" implies that Trump was referring to evidence or proof. In fact, he threw out a wild, unsubstantiated, debunked claim of voter fraud.

[Full disclosure: Since I've lived in Tucson, I've begun the morning with the Star spread on my lap and a cup of coffee in my hand. It's how I open my eyes. I support the Star. I read it cover to cover. I recommend everyone who can afford to subscribe should do so. We need our local dailies. That makes me a loyal critic of the paper who wants it to be as accurate and credible as possible.]

I looked at other paper's headlines for the same story. Most of them use the "claim without evidence" construction. The Star headline is the outlier. Another headline that includes the word "citing" uses it correctly: "Donald Trump, Citing No Evidence, Claims 'Millions' Of People Voted Illegally In The 2016 Election." [boldface added for emphasis] Interestingly, the headline is a revision of an earlier version which received heavy criticism, as you'll read below.

This isn't nit picking. It's about the role of the media to cover the news accurately and to be acutely aware of the fact that many readers don't read further than the headline and the first paragraph. Get either of those wrong in a news item and readers get it wrong.

Jay Rosen, an Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University, has a terrific Facebook post on this point. He believes the media is being tested by the Trump regime to see how it will respond to misstatements and outright lies. According to Rosen, the real news in this story is "the fact that [Trump] feels entitled to say this without a shred of evidence— THAT is the news, not the fact that he said it." Media outlets that normalize false statements from Trump help blur the line between fact and falsehood, a line Trump spent the campaign trying to erase.

Here is Rosen's post.

The other day, I had a conversation with a journalist at USA Today that alarmed me. Deeply. More on that in a minute.

Everyone in journalism — from the headline writers and the social media crews to reporters on the front lines and the editors they work for — should know by now that they are going to be tested by the regime of Donald Trump.

Everything they went through in the campaign taught them this. We need them to be ready. We need them to grasp what is at stake. There isn't time to fall into normal routines and slowly wake up to the fact that they don't apply. Winter is coming. They need to prepare.

For example: when Trump makes baseless charges like "I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally," the fact that he feels entitled to say this without a shred of evidence— THAT is the news, not the fact that he said it. But CBS News played megaphone for Trump, headlining its story like this:

'Donald Trump: 'Millions' voted illegally in election.

UPDATE, 8:50 pm: After getting heavy criticism online, CBS just changed it to: "Donald Trump, citing no evidence, claims 'millions' of people voted illegally in the 2016 election."

My exchange with the editor for USA Today was about the same problem. I wrote it up on Storify. My post is called: Evidence-based vs. accusation-driven reporting. As you will see, the editor did not understand the difference when I tried to point it out.

But it's a critical distinction that cannot be ignored. We need journalists who understand evidence-based vs. accusation-driven, but we also need readers and viewers and internet-users who are willing to speak up when the distinction is overridden. (Sometimes it works, as you can tell from the CBS example above.) My piece equips you to speak up like that. Please read it and pass it on by liking or sharing this post. Thank you.

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