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Fact-checking isn’t enough. We need fact-crusading.
The enemies of truth should be called out and confronted, not just corrected.
As the right wing keeps pushing disinformation, journalists keep fact-checking.
They dissect quotes. They consult experts. They cite statistics.
But it’s not enough. We need fact-crusading, not just fact-checking. Yes, fact-crusading.
News media must hold the facts in such high regard that the enemies of truth become their adversaries – to be called out and confronted, not just corrected.
Journalists’ job is to give people information that helps them navigate their lives. Liars sabotage what journalists do, and journalists ought to be offended. If you were a barista and someone slipped toxic sludge into your coffee drinks, you wouldn’t just warn your customers that their drink had sludge in it. You’d try to keep the sludge out of the drink.
Fighting against disinformation – instead of just cleaning up after it – is an activist role that some journalists shy away from. But it’s desperately needed. We’re in a crisis that threatens to destroy the concept of shared facts – and therefore our ability to maintain a democracy.
When Gallup’s pollsters asked Americans last month how much trust they had in mass media, 39% said “none at all.” That’s the highest since Gallup started asking this question. In 1972, only 6% said “none at all.” The partisan divide is huge: In the new poll, 58% of Republicans had no trust in media vs. 11% of Democrats. Which means the right-wing campaign to spread paranoia and erode trust in institutions has succeeded spectacularly. Many millions of Americans have been walled off from the facts.
In another new poll, 59% of Republicans said Trump was not involved in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia. No matter that there’s audio proving he was. Our nation is facing an assault on reality itself, and it’s up to the media to lead the counterattack – to go on a fact crusade. Here’s how:
Fact-checking can be nuanced, and every misstatement is not an intentional lie. But many of the lies we see today are obvious. Journalists need to call them out prominently, not just in the 14th paragraph of a story.
People read headlines. So journalists must put corrections in headlines.
Instead of writing a story headlined “Trump says UAW talks don't matter because EV shift will kill jobs,” news outlets should write stories headlined “Trump lies about electric vehicles during speech to auto workers.” This type of headline would not be a cheap shot. Trump’s September speech to non-unionized auto workers was stuffed with lies.
And when media do put the fact-check into the headline, they need to be clear. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker is an example of both good and bad.
WaPo gave Ramaswamy four Pinocchios for that claim, indicating that his statement was a “whopper.” But how would you know that from the headline?
Just because journalists have corrected a lie once doesn’t mean they shouldn’t correct it again. When Kristen Welker interviewed Donald Trump in her debut on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in September, Trump stated the right’s ridiculous lie about “post-birth abortion” four times. Welker contradicted him the first two times, but let the other two go. She may have thought she won that encounter, but she lost 4-2.
Right-wing propagandists have long known that it’s human nature to believe something if you hear it enough. Fact-checkers must learn that too.
Letting liars lie and then correcting them after they leave the interview doesn’t cut it. Confront the liars in real time. Ask them why they’re lying. Don’t wait until they leave and make the truth a footnote. If the guest on a news show gets annoyed and walks out, so be it. A big part of the disinformation problem is the news media’s devotion to the access game, which causes them to be nice to liars so they’ll come back again. Instead, news outlets should dis-invite them.
Also, when right-wing propagandists throw around phrases like “weak economy” and “skyrocketing crime” (neither of which is true), interviewers need to stop them in mid-sentence and recite the facts. This means journalists must have the facts handy. They must prep.
A LONG MEMORY
Trump went four years in the White House without coming up with a health care plan even though he repeatedly promised one “within two weeks” or “before the end of the month.” Does anyone ever ask him about that? No, because Trump has worn down the news media.
Republicans want to memory-hole a lot of things like that, including the Jan. 6 coup attempt. When ABC News reporter Rachel Scott asked House Speaker-to-be Mike Johnson last week about his efforts to nullify the 2022 election, his fellow Republicans booed and one of them yelled for the reporter to “Shut up!” To them, it was “old news.” But journalists need to keep asking questions like that until they get real answers.
CLARITY IS CARING
The news media must support their own credibility by explaining to the public how professional journalists confirm facts. Too often, journalists write for each other and don’t bother to make their reports understandable to less sophisticated news consumers. It’s vital for the news media to make the facts more engaging and credible than the lies.
We’re in an information war. It’s not a debate club or a trivia contest. It’s a question of survival for both the truth and our democracy. Which is why it’s time for fact-crusading.