Monday, December 21, 2020

How should journalists cover blatantly false or misleading statements from self-interested pols?

Last week, Grits considered responding to Austin-bashing press conference by the US Attorney for Texas' Western District, but the phony outrage was so tired and lame I couldn't muster the energy. Luckily, at least some in the Austin press corps - notably  Jolie McCullough at the Texas Tribune and Mike Clark Madison at the Austin Chronicle - chose either to debunk the falsehoods or just not to take the bait.

It's all been so silly. The murder increase in Fort Worth has been larger than in Austin, and they started with many more murders to begin with. But Austin gets special federal focus?

I don't blame Mike Clark Madison for choosing to ignore this piece of "copaganda" from a Trump Administration official who won't have a job in a month. But the Texas Tribune's McCullough took the opposite tack, aiming to debunk the misinformation instead:

“When you defund the police, relax enforcement of existing criminal law, and release repeat offenders and violent criminals into our streets, increased violence is exactly what you can expect,” Gregg Sofer, a newly appointed U.S attorney for the Western District of Texas, said in a statement after a press conference.

Austin police, like those in Fort Worth, recently stopped citing and arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana. The decisions arose from the state Legislature's legalization of hemp in 2019, which made it difficult for law enforcement officers to distinguish between legal and illegal cannabis. Recent decisions by several Texas counties to release more people from jail during the pandemic also brought backlash from the governor.

Last month, Austin Police Lt. Jeff Greenwalt addressed the rise in homicides at a press conference, but he said violent crimes detectives were still in the same shape under the new budget, “if not better.” He said given the city’s safe standing among other cities, he wasn’t yet concerned with the rise in some crimes. It’s hard to predict trends off of a small amount of data.

“We saw a rise in violent crime in the very early months of 2020, before the reimagining and the defunding conversations came up,” Greenwalt said. “I don’t think that we can say that the numbers in 2020 are reflective of that issue.”

Which is the right approach when public officials spread misinformation, ignore it or debunk it? I'd suggest both, in that order. Ignore it today, debunk it tomorrow.

Journalists should avoid reporting false statements from press events like the US Attorney's, even to debunk them, at least in the news cycle or two after they're released. The false information is being timed for a reason. As a journalist, don't be a tool for spreading it unless you fully understand what it is. Later, the information can and should be contextualized and debunked, with falsehoods a) clearly identified and b) the main point of the story.

In my imaginary world of journalism best practices, when Greg Abbott held a press conference in Fort Worth to say they were doing criminal justice right compared to Austin, pointing to the rising murder rate in the capital while ignoring that Fort Worth's was much higher, reporters would have taken note of the event but not immediately written about it. After all, it's a false statement; it has no news value.

What does have news value is the story, "Governor Makes False Statement." But that story takes research and context to write, and is more appropriate several days hence.

Live footage of reporter trying to decide how to cover Austin-bashing copaganda
Live footage of reporter trying to decide
how to cover Austin-bashing copaganda
Same goes for the US Attorney. Mike and Jolie both were right. It's not good to promote false memes, and it's also good to debunk them. It's not at all obvious which approach is right and puts the reporter in the position of a baserunner caught in a rundown between second and third: No great options.

While I realize many people believe all politicians lie, things are objectively different now. The dam has broken in the last four years, and especially in 2020. The Trump presidency demonstrated what a bind it puts journalists in when politicians are willing to openly flaunt facts. Now, state and local reporters face the same tactics and the same hard decisions about how to cover them. Ignore them? Debunk them? Report "both sides"? Should they characterize false representations as "lies"? "Mistakes"? "Spin"? "Wishful thinking"? "Blatant falsehoods"? If falsehoods further a political agenda, when should motives be impugned? These are not easy or obvious questions.

Eight years ago, Grits wrote a short essay titled "Ten Maxims for Making Journalism Relevant in the 21st Century." In retrospect it holds up well to the post-Trumpian era as a guide for how to approach these and related questions. Those interested should give it a read.


Ray Collins said...

How about this?

BREAKING NEWS: Governor makes false statement.

Governor Abbott called a press conference in Fort Worth today. Blah1, Blah2, and Blah3 were in attendance. Blah1 is awaiting trial on a felony indictment, Blah 2 (continue with cast of characters)

This story is evolving and will be updated as information becomes available.

Anonymous said...

The part about federal prosecution, with their sentencing minimums, for offenses normally handled by (elected) county and district attorneys, is definitely news. I would have liked to see an explainer about exactly how/where the US DA has that option. And I'm hopeful media are already working behind the scenes to understand how to track that, and roughing in the timeline for the follow-up story on how often it came into play. The part about increasing participation in inter-agency groups might be fluff or might be real, but similarly there's a more in-depth follow-up story to the media release - how often are law-enforcement entities outside of COA and TravCo making arrests in COA and TravCo jurisdictions, to start, as well as how those cases play out in comparision.

Gary said...

In the last 4 years? The last 30 at least.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You say that, Gary. I was a professional oppo researcher for 14 years, 68 total races ('91-'04). I've vetted a LOT of politicians' records. They have shaded or spun the truth for much longer than 30 years. But the outright fabrications Trump normalized IMO are a different breed of cat. Pols in high office ignoring reality and trumpeting blatant lies didn't happen in the same way 30 years ago in domestic policy. (It did in foreign policy: Pols blatantly lied their way into Vietnam, Iraq, etc., but got away with it bc reporters and the public couldn't fact check them.) Trump and the pols emulating him now have taken to lying blatantly, essentially defying reporters to contradict them. Journalists can't pretend now.

rodsmith said...

It may be time to start bringing criminal charges. When they are standing in front of the Reporter and toss out nothing but lies. They are defrauding the people they answer to. The voters. If there is a group of them doing it then you add conspiracyto defraud

Gary said...

I think you're confusing the press calling out lies (today), as they should, versus ignoring the lies (the past). It's my opinion, you are of course welcome to yours.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

When I was doing oppo work, I wasn't afraid to call out lies. It was the job to vet their statements incredibly closely. That's why I feel qualified to say that the lies were different. They were "I did something great" when really what you did was lame, or blame shifting when something goes wrong. What you didn't see was politicians developing their own panoply of alternative facts that can't remotely survive journalistic scrutiny, then spreading them through social media channels when the media ignore them. When top officials just repeat verifiably false statements and insist the emperor remains clothed, do you keep quoting them? The more nuanced nature of politicians' lies 30 years ago let journalists avoid confronting the issue so, er, nakedly.