Don’t share this story about Trump and disinformation without reading past the headline

President Donald Trump lies all the time, in ways that news headlines fail to capture.

Research has shown that the majority of news consumers — six in 10 — rarely read below the headline of a story, and show a greater propensity to blindly share news items with their friends rather than read those stories all the way through to the end for their own edification.

In the current news infrastructure, social media — and its near-frictionless means of porting news items from user to user — has become the chief vector by which most news spreads, which means the headlines affixed to the tweets and Facebook posts of major media brands become crucial to ensuring that good information finds its way into the hands of readers.

One problem: According to a new study conducted by Media Matters, many of those headlines are not effectively capturing the truth:

Major media outlets failed to rebut President Donald Trump’s misinformation 65% of the time in their tweets about his false or misleading comments, according to a Media Matters review. That means the outlets amplified Trump’s misinformation more than 400 times over the three-week period of the study — a rate of 19 per day.

The data shows that news outlets are still failing to grapple with a major problem that media critics highlighted during the Trump transition: When journalists apply their traditional method of crafting headlines, tweets, and other social media posts to Trump, they end up passively spreading misinformation by uncritically repeating his falsehoods.

The media remains largely in new territory, covering a president who seems to want to constantly make news while simultaneously being almost entirely unmoored from the truth. Media outlets have struggled to find their footing throughout the Trump phenomenon.

In November of 2016, for example, when Trump falsely took credit for stopping a Ford Motor Company factory from relocating to Mexico, ABC News properly characterized the matter in its story’s lede:

President-elect Donald Trump took credit Thursday night for convincing the chairman of Ford Motor Company to keep a manufacturing plant in Louisville, Kentucky, from relocating to Mexico — but the automaker says it never planned to relocate the entire plant.

However, the story received the headline, “Donald Trump Takes Credit for Keeping a Kentucky Ford Plant From Moving to Mexico,” which fails to properly contextualize the fact that none of this was true. It’s likely that a majority of the people who interacted with this news story came away with the impression that Trump has successfully prevented the closure of a Ford factory. It’s also likely that those people who interacted with the story shared it with others, thus spreading this misinformation.

And when brands make adjustments to their headlines for the purpose of social media consumption, critical context can be excluded. As Media Matters discovered in January of 2017, Trump’s claim that “millions of people” illegally cast votes in the 2016 election was treated very differently by media brands depending on the venue for their content. In numerous cases, media organizations that successfully contextualized the falseness of Trump’s claim in the headline of their story, failed to do the same on Twitter.

CBS News tweet: “Donald Trump: ‘Millions’ Voted Illegally For Hillary Clinton”*

CBS News headline: “Donald Trump, Citing No Evidence, Claims ‘Millions’ Of People Voted Illegally In The 2016 Election”

NBC News tweet: “Trump Claims He Lost Popular Vote Because ‘Millions’ Voted Illegally”

NBC News headline: “With No Evidence, Trump Claims ‘Millions’ Voted Illegally”

Wash. Post tweet: “Donald Trump: ‘I Won The Popular Vote If You Deduct The Millions Of People Who Voted Illegally’”

WSJ tweet: “Video: Trump Claims Millions ‘Voted Illegally’”

WSJ headline: “Donald Trump Alleges That ‘Millions of People’ Voted Illegally”

CNN tweet: “Trump Alleges He Would Have Won Popular Vote If ‘Millions Of People’ Hadn’t Voted Illegally For Hillary Clinton”

NY Times tweet: “Donald Trump, Citing No Evidence, Claimed ‘Millions’ Voted Illegally. He Was Railing Against A Recount Push” [Media Matters, 11/28/16]

Media organizations aren’t spreading this misinformation because they have malevolent intentions. And with the possible example of The Hill — which Media Matters cites as the worst offender in the spread of bad headlines, and which has proven itself to have such laggard editorial standards that it once published a ghostwritten op-ed without deleting the instructions that the corporate ghostwriters left in the body of the text for the piece’s ersatz author — the problem isn’t journalistic incompetence. Rather, it’s a combination of quantity — the avalanche of news that Trump is capable of making — married to a certain level of passivity.

Per Media Matters:

Media outlets put a great deal of focus on Trump’s comments — roughly one out of every five tweets mentioning Trump was about a particular quote. We found that that content strategy leaves outlets vulnerable to passing on the president’s misinformation, as 30% of those Trump quotes contained a false or misleading claim.

News outlets can report on Trump’s falsehoods without misleading their audience if they take the time to fact-check his statements within the body of their tweets. But we found that that isn’t happening consistently — in nearly two-thirds of tweets referencing false or misleading Trump claims, the media outlets did not dispute Trump’s misinformation.

It shouldn’t have to be this way, and with different presidents who played by different rules, it wasn’t. Reporters documenting a president’s remarks from, say, a White House pool spray typically don’t do much harm in live tweeting those statements in real time. But Trump’s propensity to pack any prolonged period of utterances with falsehoods, combined with the fact that it’s not always possible to immediately factcheck everything the president says, can turn every single reporter’s trickle of tweets into what the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent calls “a gushing Amazon River of disinformation.”

It is possible for the media to get this right, however.

Analysis: Trump claims a wall is needed to stop human trafficking. No data back up his claim.

— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) February 4, 2019


The key, as Media Matters researchers prescribe, is for media organizations to limit “the exposure their audience ha[s] to Trump’s misinformation by minimizing their focus on Trump’s comments,” and to take the time necessary to apply some scrutiny to his claims before broadcasting them. Elsewhere, the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan suggests that the media apply linguist and media critic George Lakoff’s “truth sandwich” rubric, in which journalists “get as close to the overall, big-picture truth as possible right away,” then faithfully report the president’s claims, and then provide a factcheck to those claims.

Long after Trump has quit the scene, these are valuable practices to apply to future presidents. In the meantime, perhaps the best advice for readers as they navigate the media landscape comes from Brooke Binkowski, the former managing editor of renowned factcheck website Snopes: “If you’re reading, viewing, or listening to a story that’s flooding you with high emotion, negative or positive — whether it’s fear, rage, schadenfreude, amusement at how gullible everyone else is — check your sources.”

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