Arnold Kling  

News Reporting and Falsehoods

Three Quick Takes... Charles Murray and the Dilemma...

Concerning campaign smears, Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt write,

Journalists should avoid presenting both sides of a story when one is false - and take into account how readers' brains process the disagreements. The following four rules can guide their efforts.

1. State the facts without reinforcing the falsehood...

2. Tell the truth with images...

3. Provide a compelling storyline or mental framework for the truth.

4. Discredit the source.

Thanks to Mark Thoma for the pointer.

Their point is that reporting both sides and letting people make up their own minds is dangerous. Often, people will believe the side of the story that is false.

It is true that people often will believe a false narrative. But I fear that some of the most dangerous false narratives are promulgated by the very reporters that Wang and Aamodt are speaking to.

In the end, I do not believe that the best way to counteract manipulative narratives is to engage in manipulative counter-narration. I would advocate trying to seek the truth and to report it without manipulation.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Student writes:

The problem is that there are very little knowledge requirements for journalists. You can become a journalist with a degree in anything. So if a reporter hears a claim from a campaign on economics, how can he evaluate its truthfulness? He won't do it himself because he's not qualified. Instead, he'll go to experts, which seems reasonable to begin with. But it's not that great. The reporter has to judge the opinions of the experts and decide which is best or synthesize a few views to come up with his own. But then how can he be qualified to do that, even? In my wildest dreams, truth seeking by reporters would work. But in expectation I expect much less of the press.

Grant writes:

I'm with Student on this one. Lets tackle the easy stuff first, such as world peace and ending all scarcity, before trying to make the media honest. They really just have no incentive to be honest, at all.

Mark Thoma writes:

I sent a copy of this to Bryan as I thought it was an example of "libertarian paternalism" outside of economics and hence applied to his list of question in his recent post (which I have not had the time to even think about, though I wish I did as I'd like to try to answer them).

English Professor writes:

The main problem is giving the journalist the power to determine what constitutes "falsehood." Is the U.S. in a recession? Some say "yes," some say "no," and others say "technically no." Is a journalist to judge which claim is valid? And what if a politician says that "this is the worst economy since the depression"? I've heard this said by several, and it is clearly nonsense to anyone who lived through the 1970s. Is it the part of a journalist to "tell the truth" and to say that politician x has misrepresented the facts in an attempt to smear the Bush administration? What is the likelihood of that?

There is also the much more complex problem of perspective. The "swift boat" attacks against Kerry are a case in point. Some of the officers who served with him in Viet Nam claimed that he cared more about himself than about the men under him, and that his accusations against his fellow soldiers upon his return were false and his conduct dishonorable. Are these charges "false" and to be refuted by journalists? The men who brought them seemed sincere and honorable. The authors of the article would almost certainly see this as a "smear": was it? I know many people who believe that it was. I found it a legitimate question of character, especially when Kerry started using his military service as a focal point of his campaign while trying to bury the accusations he made conserning war crimes. I certainly would not trust a journalist to judge the matter and then slant his reporting in accord with his conclusions.

Brad Hutchings writes:

I don't think it matters much. Let's say that Wang's and Aamodt's suggestion becomes widely adopted by the MSM. The only times when actual harm would be done are when the reporters conclude that a charge is false when it is indeed true. John Edwards. Bill Clinton's affair with an intern. If the MSM plays "see no evil, hear no evil, smell no evil" with a charge that is indeed true, the alternative media will scoop them and embarrass them. And in Edwards' case, had he been the nominee or the close also-ran, he'd have destroyed his party and the people would quickly realize the MSM's role in that destruction.

Sorge L. Diaz writes:

The problem, as both Arnold and other commenters have already pointed out, is that journalists don't know how to evaluate claims.

What often happens already is that their biases show in their reporting. Failing to even mention 'the other side' in their reporting will make their stories even more biases than they already are.

Imagine journalists trying to navigate through the global warming arguments.

Journalistic incompetence is a far graver problem than the mental biases of the audience. And there is no easy cure for journalistic incompetence.

Not an Economist writes:

4. Discredit the source. Ideas have special staying power if they evoke a feeling of disgust. Indeed, brain pathways dedicated to processing disgust can be activated by descriptions of morally repellent behavior. The motives of the purveyors of falsehoods can provide a powerful story hook.

You know, I think they plagiarized some of this stuff straight out of Karl Rove's playbook.

VentrueCapital writes:
I would advocate trying to seek the truth and to report it without manipulation.
Maybe it's because of circumstances, or maybe I'm just slow by nature: I don't really understand how "seeking the truth and reporting it without manipulation" would be different from the rules that Wang and Aamodt listed, or at least the first three of them. Or did you mean that the first three rules are okay, and the last one is a kicker?
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