We were only a few days into Donald Trump’s presidency when Trump Counsellor Kellyanne Conway defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statements at a White House press brief as “alternative facts”. Since then, the debate about how the media should deal with “alternative facts” has only increased in intensity as more of Mr Trump’s false claims saturate the news coverage.
But, what are these alternative facts, if not lies? And what is the best way for journalists to deal with lies coming from the most powerful? Should journalists change the way they do their reporting?
Together with Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute, and Alan Rusbridger, former editor at the Guardian and principal of Lady Margaret Hall, I set out to find answers to these questions. We set up the crowdsourcing initiative How to cover people who lie. Our goal was to gather ideas and suggestions for how the media best can deal with lies coming from the most powerful, as well as underline the importance of a continuous and open debate about this.
When we started, the five-page document had an outline with some questions and a few ideas to get the debate going. Then, we left the document completely open for anyone to add and edit contributions. When we closed the document on 9th February, we had more than 100 contributions from journalists, media scholars and concerned citizens around the world. Lies from the powerful is of course nothing new, and many journalists from countries like Bulgaria, Russia, Venezuela and Austria contributed with experiences and advice.
While the document revealed important disagreements about the role of journalism, there was a general agreement on a few crucial points: journalists must report relentlessly, get outside of the bubble, call a lie a lie, follow the money and don’t get distracted by Twitter! Here are some of the findings.
- Call lies lies and falsehoods falsehoods. Not doing so undermines credibility and trustworthiness with the public (even if it may infuriate partisans).
- In turn, cover the partisans who support powerful people who lie. Understand their worldview, give voice to their perspective.
- Get outside the bubble, away from official sources and insider group-think.
- Focus on the substance, not the form. Journalists should follow the money and cover consequential and binding decisions rather than provocations and conspicuous displays of “doing something”.
- Follow up on each other’s questions. Share notes on sources’ credibility.
- Don’t lead with the false statement in the headline or the standfirst (the introductory paragraph), and don’t succumb to false equivalence (“Views on the shape of the Earth differ.”)
- Don’t let yourself be distracted by endless tweets and provocative asides—cover the story, not the person. Focusing on every provocation and false statement ends up rewarding the lies with publicity.
- Avoid going live unless absolutely necessary. Consider not broadcasting live press conferences and interviews with sources who are known to be unreliable. Breaking news coverage makes real-time fact-checking hard and publicises the lie.
- Don’t give publicity to unreliable sources. It may produce engaging and provocative content, and in turn bring in an audience and advertising, but long-term, it undermines credibility.
- Treat politicians you like or agree with differently than those you dislike/disagree with. Please don’t be one of those journalists who end up sharing false information on social media about politicians they personally do not support.
The death of objectivity?
The ongoing debate around falsehoods and lies from the powerful has also highlighted the debate about impartiality in journalism. Many contributors side with Reuters’ Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler, who argues that journalists already know how to deal with powerful people who lie, and that the answer is more good journalism. In an article about how Reuters will cover Trump, Adler argues intrepid and unbiased reporting is sufficient: ‘We already know what to do because we do it every day, and we do it all over the world.’
Others argue that objectivity is dead and that Donald Trump forces the media to take a stand. This doesn’t mean that journalists should not continue to report on the facts. Rather, it means that, in the words of former NPR Marketplace reporter Lewis Wallace, ‘objectivity is dead’ and that journalists ‘need to admit that those who oppose free speech, diversity and kindergarten level fairness are our enemies.’ In his view, the solution is more engaged journalism that takes a stand.
Several contributors suggested journalists are themselves part of the problem. Having relied for too long on insider access and staying to close to the elites, many journalists have lost touch with the people and are in fact part of the elite they are trying to cover.
While there are disagreements about the approach, both the disagreements and the do and don’ts-list focus on how journalists can make sure that they put their responsibility to the public and to truth before anything else. That is ultimately the journalist’s job.
While the “How to cover people who lie” document is closed for additional edits for now, we will review and update it over the next month. Please send your ideas and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 The views expressed in this article are not the official views of the Reuters Institute.