August 31, 2009
The problem of how to cover claims that are both sensational and false is a perennial problem journalists face. It has resurfaced with the much-repeated, and much-debunked, allegation that Democratic health care reforms contain a proposal that would empower government bureaucrats to cut off treatment for people who are dying.
It’s generally agreed that there never was such a “death panels” provision. The claim was at best a misunderstanding and at worst a deliberate distortion of an innocuous, and humane, proposal to authorize reimbursement for people who seek counseling about handling end-of-life care for a family member. The onetime Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, is credited with spinning that provision into an imaginary license to kill. But she had a lot of help.
Among her helpers were the media themselves, which gave huge play to the death panels tale—as well as televising the more hysterical denunciations of the reforms as ushering in a dark era of euthanasia.
Traditionally, the media would trumpet the false claim and then give reform advocates a chance to deny it. That’s the customary news formula derided as “he said, she said.”
But the “he said, she said” solution to the problem of reconciling accuracy with giving people their fair say has been under increasing attack. Jay Rosen, a New York University professor and new media sage, posted a powerful critique of this “lame formula” in April that has been widely cited, and it’s clear that as a reporting paradigm it’s crumbling. Indeed, as was clear from the surge of fact-checking during the 2008 elections, news organizations increasingly are taking it on their own authority to refute falsehoods.
So this time, when it came to the “death panels,” the Washington Post’s influential media reporter, Howard Kurtz, observed: “For once, mainstream journalists did not retreat to the studied neutrality of quoting dueling antagonists.” Reporters took the additional step of pointing out, on their own authority, that the proposals don’t contain any such provision. To “he said, she said,” was added: “we say.”
Trouble is, it hasn’t really mattered. Even though news organizations debunked the claim, 45 percent of respondents to an NBC poll still believe the reforms would indeed allow the federal government to halt treatment to the elderly—a staggering number.
Why? Maybe because, by Kurtz’s count, Palin’s “death panels” were mentioned 18 times by his own paper, 16 times in the New York Times, and at least 154 times on cable and network news (not including daytime news shows.)
Plainly, refuting a falsehood doesn’t keep it from doing harm. The solution isn’t some cheap fix, first giving end-of-the-world play to some incendiary fantasy and then inserting a line that says the preceding was utter rubbish. The real problem goes to the core of traditional news practices. As Greg Marx noted in a sensible Columbia Journalism Review posting, the solution is “making a more concerted effort not to disseminate false or dubious claims in the first place.”
Suppose some headline-loving political eminence announces that the reason the health system is in crisis is illegal immigration. Now, you could refute that with experts, with numbers, with facts. And it wouldn’t matter a bit—not if you lead your newscast with him, if you let that week’s debate revolve around his claims. You’d still whip up rage, you’d still give him a soapbox, you’d still bleed off attention from the issues lawmakers need to tackle to fix health care, you’d still create a population that believes something that isn’t so.
As the saying goes, what really matters isn’t what people think, it’s what they think about: Debunking falsehoods is fine, but the more that news media embrace it as if it’s a cure-all, the worse we’ll all be. The solution isn’t to refute, it’s to ignore. End the practice of rewarding the most sensational, the most irresponsible, the most baseless allegations with top-of-the-news billing. The media bury worthwhile news all the time; how about burying the worthless stuff?
There, however, the problem isn’t so much with reporters, it’s with their bosses, the ones who insist on running the screaming footage from “town meetings,” on giving dramatic lies a prominence they don’t deserve—ensuring an audience, but while ensuring the lies a public life no reasoned refutation can end.
“He said, she said” has always been a dubious way to report the world. “We say” helps, but only a little. The real solution is simple: It’s called news judgment.