Journalism in the Age of Post-Truth Politics

Much to my chagrin, so-called “fact-checking” has become somewhat of a gimmick in the media as of late, as if the field is not immanently a part of actual journalism. But hey, at least we might have a more substantive debate, when such trivialities as facts are actually a part of the public conversation. (Or not.1)

While it’s slightly encouraging that media are focusing on busting the factoids and broken promises of politicians, journalists are still behind the curve. We are now dealing with politicians who don’t just lie, but double down on them, even if they are called on their falsehoods. As David Bernstein put it:

Dear media critics: OK, entire news media called Romney’s welfare attack a lie. Campaign still pushing it. Now what?

Even Mitt Romney’s pollster does not mince words about their strategy:

Romney pollster Neil Newhouse: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

So much for that fancy fact-checking gimmick. We are beyond plausible deniability here. Journalists’ job is shifting from shooting down common misconceptions and wrongful statements to engaging in an all-out war with bald-faced liars to course correct a narrative to one congruent with a fact-based reality. And one does not simply fact-check a narrative. Some key take-aways from what the New York Times’s public editor Margaret Sullivan writes:

  • Call a blatant lie in plain English; don’t mince words nor use euphemisms.
  • Fact-checking should not be restricted to niche articles and features.
  • In fact, the way people are talking about “fact-checking” threatens to trivialize and altogether isolate the basic journalistic tenet, at a time when it is more important than ever.
  • The exercise loses sight of the broader perspective when bogged down in numbers and per-sentence debunking.
  • It also fails to give readers an impression of how truthful a candidate is—qualitatively and quantitatively—proportional to his or her lies.
  • This calls for someone to call it like they see it, a human being instead of a spreadsheet of data and index of arbitrary ratings systems. If someone is a serial liar, people should know.

It is no coincidence the tagline of the blog you are reading reads “filtered digest with perspective”. Bloggers may “filter” news (or in their own insufferable parlance “curate” it), but you can’t “curate” your way to perspective. A thousand blog post do not guarantee perspective—but possibly information indigestion.2

This task requires an actual human being with journalistic sensibilities who takes the time and effort to bring a bird’s-eye view of a topic. Some think this qualities as opinion pieces, but it is just plain journalism.

Journalism explains matters and puts them into perspective. Fact-checks fail to accomplish this on their own. In fact, fact-checking encourages false equivalence, regardless of what a politician’s truth-o-meter score (or whatever newfangled name the system is given) may be. Is a lie about five million dollars as egregious as a lie about five trillion? I’m sure there are fact-checkers dying to invent a metric for the importance of a statement. Little will we learn without a carbon-based journalist to piece it together for us.3

Margaret Sullivan hints at the problem of proportionality in reporting and the lack of a human touch in “He Said, She Said, and the Truth”:

Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.

(Translation: people want journalism, not fact-checking.)

Real-Time Journalism

The Urgency

Everything happens in real time now, 24/7. We can no longer watch a debate attentively and wait until the end to form an opinion; Twitter will be abuzz before, during, and after the debates, all of which will affect people’s perception of the debate through this watercooler prism. To understand the urgency this brings to journalism and politicians, consider Alec MacGillis’s succinct observation on the first debate:

Thousands of political reporters do not fly to Denver to watch a TV for 90 minutes without coming back with a new narrative.

Note that reporters want to go home with a (new) narrative. A lie is not a narrative, but it can feed a strategic deception to influence the narrative. Rarely do reporters get caught up in the minutiae of lies and deception. (Body language analysis available on page 3–9 and 13–5. You’ll understand who won the debate so much better, if you watch it with the sound turned off!)

The sooner you can plant the seeds of a story in the minds of people, the better your odds of coming out of the debate as a “winner”. (Because the horse race logic of mainstream media dictates that one has to be declared winner of the debate.) In mainstream media, at least the TV-based ones, every day is a slow-news day, and to suggest a narrative is to throw the dog a bone, to do their work for them, essentially.

Bear in mind that there are people who don’t even watch the entirety of significant events altogether; they get their recap elsewhere. There is not only an urgency to fact-check politicians in real-time, but also one to describe overarching deceit in the story you go home and write after the debate. The real-time coverage calls for a style that lends itself to per-sentence debunking—and, if time and resources allow, a scrutiny of the broader picture a poltician is trying to paint—while the conclusive story meant to digest and reflect on the whole debate should focus on the deception, not the lies, to inform a final verdict of a poltician’s talking points.

And it’s not as if the ways campaigns can shape public perception are limited to a handful of vectors. Read how far behind journalists are according to Sasha Issenberg:

Once the campaign had identified those voters, it could start communicating with them, either through individually targeted contact like mail, phone calls and Web ads or niche media, which often elude the attention of the national political press.

“All journalists have one channel and all campaigns have one hundred, between Internet, TV, e-mail,” says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who has been a strategist for four Democratic presidential candidates. “They’re out there thinking, ‘What should we put in the goldbug newsletter or the Hadassah weekly?’ and the reporters are all thinking about what you’re putting in their paper.”

Forget the quandary over whether a newspaper should explore a new communication platform for sake of monetization and relevance; the imperative thing is that journalists need a large presence in the media landscape in order to intercept others from peddling their version of the truth. It is not about pandering to young early adopters, but retaining your footing in the vigilance against lies and deceit.

Journalism As an Immune System

The human immune system should blow your mind, if you realize just how much goes into protecting you from foreign bodies. Your body repels them from entering in any conceivable way, so soon that you rarely notice it yourself. Even if the bodies find their way into yours, the immune system will usually know how to take care of business, albeit in a more arduous and taxing manner. I think it is instructive to draw from this analogy when pondering the journalistic imperative in the age of mass communication.

Journalists today need to defend against lies, the second they present themselves, lest we want them to infect the full body of public conscience. The earlier we manage to fight the deception, the easier the effort. Because if we grow lazy and complacent, we are dealing with a full-body infection that is going to require orders of magnitude more effort and energy to fight—and it’s not like we only face one infectious deception at a time. Once the infection has begun, it will spread with unseen virality from person to person through tweets, blog posts, other easy means of sentiment-sharing.

It is better if we do not underestimate the inklings of a planned narrative, and debunk it, before it grows into a larger unmanageable phenomenon. If we can police the different mediums of communication and innoculate people by informing them of the deceit, we can nip it in the bud and create a kind of herd immunity. We can even create our own viral response by creating simple graphics and pages of explanations that can easily be shared on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and other viral grounds zero.


If you think a defensive approach to journalism is the way to go, hardened debate veteran Barack Obama wants to have a word with you.

A Pocket Guide for Journalism in the Age of Post-Truth Politics

To recap all my points, I have distilled what I think journalists need in the face of post-truth politics and the emergence of ubiquitous media in a 24/7 world into a ten-point guide based on five premises.

Premises

  • a. Both Republicans and Democrats deceive. None deserve more benefit of the doubt than the other.

  • b. Elections are about narratives, not opinions and facts4. Lies are intended to stick and support a coordinated narrative.

  • c. Some lie more than others—sometimes much more. This requires proportional critical debunking. This is just journalism, not partisanship.5

  • d. Fact-checkers can be wrong or misleading. Consider what this implies for you.

  • e. Fact-checking can do more harm than good when done for the wrong reasons.

Do

  1. Fact-check politicians—be it their lies or attempts to mislead.

  2. Incorporate fact-checking in all writing instead of spinning it off as a gimmick.

  3. Do not mince words nor use euphemisms when calling people out. (Don’t fall for the temptation of abstruse scoring systems that encourage anodyne labelling of statements as sort-of-true and sort-of-false.)

  4. Call them out as soon as possible, preferably in real-time6. Maybe even in the headline.7

  5. If they continue lying, continue debunking the lie. Journalism exists to purge these lies altogether. It’s better to focus down the lie, before it seeps into public (sub)conscience.

  6. It might be convenient to have a dedicated “fact-checking” page with an exhaustive explanation of a specific lie, if it keeps getting repeated. That way, people outside the newspaper may also be able to address the lie using your website.

  7. Try to figure out the larger narrative the lie is intended to validate (see premis b). The lies will keep coming, but the narrative is largely the same. Better to police the narrative to explain to readers the integrity of the broader perspective. As Kevin Drum would say, focus on the deception, not the lie.

  8. There is no place for “he said, she said” and false equivalence. Journalism does not mean holding the microphone to whomever wants to spread their message. That’s PR, not journalism.

  9. In the same vein, don’t hold a microphone to disagreements and stand idly by. Insert yourself into the discussion and try to figure out what (not who) is right and wrong; that is the story, not the disagreement. Every fact will have someone who disagrees with it.

  10. Do not limit your fact-checking to politicians. People in think tanks, business, academia, and news and journalism have vested interests in helping certain candidates and ideologies directly or indirectly.

Further Reading

Addendum

I caught Brendan Nyhan’s article on countering information (expounded on in another one) where he proposes another advice for journalist I hadn’t thought of:

[I]t may be more effective (PDF) to “name and shame” dishonest politicians and pundits who promote misinformation.


  1. Fact-checkers like PolitiFact are serial offenders in distorting the truth in the name of fact-checking: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6 (Flash video), #7, #8, #9 (Flash video). 

  2. As an aside, too much fact-checking for the sake of fact-checking can constrict both voters and politicians cf. David Corn:

    The Obama campaign has assigned a deputy press secretary to be its point person for fact-checkers’ questions. Several staffers at Romney HQ do the same. Both campaigns complain about being overwhelmed by the requests that flood their inboxes, and they gripe about the ensuing judgments. “If we say the sky is blue, we would get a ‘half-true’ because we didn’t give the full explanation that the sky is blue because of chemical reactions that occurred in the atmosphere a million years ago,” one aide grouses.

    This is one of many arguments for abandoning the concept of fact-checking sites and sections in favour of integrating it into journalism proper. David Corn’s article does a great job of explaining how fact-checking can be a detriment instead of a boon, if it runs so far away that journalists aren’t there to rein it in. 

  3. Worth noting is Ezra Klein’s second point espousing a belief that fact-checkers prove useful, because journalists and reporters can use them as a proxy for debunking a politician’s claim without appearing “biased” themselves. 

  4. To quote the poet Muriel Rukeyser, “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms”. 

  5. Jay Rosen writes on the fallacious logic behind this:

    Think: If asymmetry counts as evidence for media bias, an asymmetrical situation can never be portrayed by the media in an unbiased way… by definition!

    And the people who still try come up short

  6. Mara Liasson shows how this can be done well in an audio-only format, and Soledad O’Brien has done a great job of grilling her guests on CNN. 

  7. Make a mental note of how Chris Hughes, the publisher and editor in chief of the magazine, brought attention to the subject by tweeting a link to the article