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Major news outlets have repeatedly failed to accurately portray President Donald Trump’s misleading and false claims in their headlines, including just his comments without noting that they’re false or without including crucial context. But some experts have advice for how journalists can write headlines that better inform their readers about the president’s claims and allegations.
Many news organizations have fallen into the lazy trap of simply repeating whatever Trump claims in their headlines, without indicating whether it’s true or including necessary context. In fact, many of the country’s most prominent mainstream media outlets have been guilty of this practice. Here are some examples in their original format (some have since changed):
- AP: “Trump Finally Admits President Obama Was Born In The US”
- ABC News: “Donald Trump Takes Credit For Keeping A Kentucky Ford Plant From Moving To Mexico”
- WSJ: “Donald Trump Alleges That ‘Millions of People’ Voted Illegally”
- CNN.com: “Trump Accuses Obama Of Wiretapping Him”
The first two failed to contextualize Trump’s statements, specifically failing to note that Trump had for years perpetuated the falsehood that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., and that Ford had never planned to move its Kentucky plant, only to shift a fraction of its production. The last two headlines gave credence to Trump’s claims despite a total lack of evidence.
Why is it important that headlines about Trump fully inform readers about what he says and does? Because a 2014 study by the Media Insight Project revealed that around 60 percent of American news consumers read only news headlines. When that many readers don’t go beyond the headline, including clarifying details only in the body of the piece is simply insufficient, leaving many people uninformed about the truth -- or lack thereof -- behind Trump’s claims.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, discussed on CNN’s Reliable Sources the dilemma that Trump’s spurious claims create for journalists, and explained the need for headlines to make it clear when his comments lack proof:
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: [Trump] creates a dilemma for journalists because ordinarily journalists would say, "The president said," then would look for the alternative, then look for the documentation and play through that narrative. But when there's no proof, journalists have to find a way in the headline to say, "Without proof, Trump alleges" so that we don't put in place the allegation as if it has some legitimacy. Rather, we should be saying, “Where's the proof?” What Trump specializes in is shifting the burden of proof. Making a charge with no evidence and then asking for an investigation shifts the burden of proof. Now someone is supposed to disprove an unproven allegation.
Jim Rutenberg, a media columnist for The New York Times, offered similar input on Fox News’ MediaBuzz when asked how to frame Trump’s latest evidence-free allegation that Obama wiretapped him:
JIM RUTENBERG: Here is this amazing, huge allegation. So we need to drive for evidence. And so if there isn't any, we need to say it. Because if you do that headline -- and this is a big debate, you’ll see it unfold on Twitter and kind of publicly and I'm sure other shows like this one -- is if you do that headline, “President Trump accuses predecessor of spying on him,” that's a very flat statement. And if there’s no evidence, I think you do have to say there’s no evidence.
And George Lakoff, a retired University of California, Berkeley cognitive science and linguistics professor, gave a more in-depth explanation on Reliable Sources on how to best report on Trump’s comments -- in short, state the truth before introducing Trump’s claim or quote:
GEORGE LAKOFF: Well first of all, you do need the facts, but you need to know how to present those facts because if you just negate what [Trump’s] saying, you're going to just strengthen him. So, remember, Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook,” and people thought of him as a crook. I wrote a book called Don't Think of an Elephant. It makes you think of an elephant. If you say -- repeat what Donald Trump says, and then negate it and say “no,” and then you repeat what he says and say it's false, what you're doing is strengthening that, because in your brain, the neural circuits have to activate what you are negating in order to negate it, and that strengthens what you're negating. So every time you negate it, you help the other side.
What you can do is the opposite. What Trump is doing in these cases is diverting attention from real issues. Real issues like Russia, for example. Like his foreign policy, like his business connections, and on and on. Lots of real issues that he's diverting attention from. What you can do in reporting this is talk first about the truth about what he's diverting attention from, the real issues. Then go and say, “Here’s what he said in his tweet because his tweet is strategic, trying to divert attention.” Then you can say, “This is an attempt to divert attention from this and it's false. Here is why it's false. Let's go back to the real issues,” and you go on. With about 30 seconds on Trump, rather than all the time on Trump. The more time you spend on Trump on putting him out there, the more you help him.
BRIAN STELTER (HOST): I'll take an example from that sound bite we just played. We played the president talking about Obamacare. So you're saying the better way to handle this is to do the following: to say Obamacare supports 22 million people, but President Trump today said very few people have Obamacare. Is that the better way?
LAKOFF: Well, the fact is that it's false. And what he's trying to do is divert attention from the truth -- again. And that's exactly what you say. When you report it, you point out first, frame first, that Obamacare took care of 22 million people, more than were before. That attempts to get rid of it would get rid of care for many millions of people. Then you can say, “But the president, diverting attention from this, said the following.” Then you give his quote, and you say, “He missed, of course, the fact that 22 million people is not a few number of people.”
LAKOFF: You frame first. You frame with the truth first. Your job is to present the truth for the public good. And you do it first because if he gets to frame it first, that's how people understand the situation.