Historically low trust in the media complicates fact checking and calling out campaign lies
News organizations become more willing to label what politicians say as a ‘lie’ but the public appears less willing to accept their judgements as media proliferation provides cover
How should the media handle lying, especially in an era where media consumption is segregated by partisanship and alternative media realities are plentiful? Can one even use the word lie, or is simply contradicting the lie enough?
With trust in the media at historic lows, the issue has come to the front in this election cycle and is challenging media executives who are, at the same time trying to broaden their reach in order to increase paid digital subscriptions and sell more online advertising.
‘Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it.’
“I think we’re in a remarkably partisan moment, where people who don’t like Donald Trump feel like the media is not doing enough about him. I think that’s just wrong,” Dean Baquet, executive editor at The New York Times told NPR in an interview conducted just before Donald Trump admitted that President Obama was, in fact, born in the US. “I think that people who don’t like Donald Trump honestly believe that if people knew what they knew, saw what they saw, understood what they saw, that people couldn’t possibly support Donald Trump. I think that’s demonstrably false.”
And there is the problem. One can call out a lie and still not be effective in persuading a portion of the readership that the NYT is correctly reporting the facts. In other words, some portion of the readership will believe it is the NYT is distorting the facts, not the candidate they support.
Baquet was asked in his short interview if the paper has called Hillary Clinton a liar. “I don’t think Hillary Clinton, to be honest, has crossed the line the way Donald Trump did with the birther issue,” Baquet said. It is doubtful that those who support the Republican nominee would agree, reinforcing the notion that the press is selective in who it calls out for untruths.
I’m not sure that the media has yet to come up with a solution for how to handle the proliferation of lying by politicians. Politicians, on the other hand, understand the problem and are taking advantage of the situation.
Take, for example, what is going on in Syria. The US bombed Syrian troops last week, resulting in massive casualties, the Pentagon took days before finally admitting the error. Meanwhile, Syria claimed the bombings were intentional. Then this week, Syrian or Russian planes struck an aid convoy in Aleppo while Syrian troops continue to prevent food from entering the city. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied that their planes struck the convoy or that Syrian troops were besieging Aleppo and turned around and claimed the US was lying. The Russians, meanwhile, said a US drone was reported in the area at the time of the convoy bombing and that maybe the US was to blame.
It would be hard for news readers not to conclude that both sides are lying, and that any claim they read in the press is to be taken with a grain of salt.