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Three tips for navigating lies in the news

Media Uncovered  |  By Carly Goodman, Jan 24, 2017
Stack of newspapers

Learn to sort out legitimate news from the false and misleading stories that circulate online.

Photo: AFSC

In the first days of the new administration, the president and his spokespeople have repeated falsehoods that have been previously debunked. Speaking plainly, these statements are lies. When the White House lies, it creates challenges both for journalists and news consumers. Journalists need to accurately cover the administration. Many readers are not used to fact-checking basic statements from the White House. Here are three tips for dealing with this confusing situation:

Tip #1: Fact-check your news & read beyond headlines. Media outlets are not used to covering an administration that spreads falsehoods regularly, and even a trusted source may report false information as fact. Learn to look for the evidence in an article and evaluate how strong it is.

  • This weekend the president repeated a lie about widespread voter fraud. This claim is not only “without evidence” as some media outlets suggested back in December when Trump said it during the transition period. There is actually an abundance of research clearly showing that the type of widespread voter fraud that Trump continues to tout does not exist. 

Tip #2: Support journalists and stories that call out the lie. We need journalists to do their jobs and produce accurate, well-supported articles that do not repeat lies and false claims, and that bring light and clarity in the din. A free, independent press is essential to our democracy, especially in difficult times such as these – and especially when false information is spread so freely.

  • Support good journalism and reward it with your eyeballs, clicks, and subscription fees, and speak up when reporters and editors fail to do their jobs. Some editors, such as the Wall Street Journal's editor-in-chief Gerard Baker, have stated they will avoid calling out lies. Others, both in mainstream and progressive media, are taking a different track. For instance, after Trump returned to his talking point about illegal votes, The New York Times published a front page headline calling it a lie

Tip #3: Remember the purpose of the lie. When a lie is being widely believed and repeated, it’s worth asking why it is gaining power. The president's claim that millions of people voted illegally is not only unsubstantiated, but easy to debunk. That kind of voter fraud happens so rarely, it is nearly non-existent. But what is the purpose of that lie? Lies about voter fraud erode faith in democracy, and may be used to provide justification for voter suppression laws. 

  • Instead of simply myth-busting, focus on the purpose of the lie and start a new conversation.  Get at the purpose of the myth about voter fraud without repeating it. Instead, talk about resisting new voter suppression laws, and advocate to restore voting rights to people barred from voting due to a felony conviction. By starting a new conversation about the fundamental importance of voting, you can build support for policies that protect voting rights and thwart false messages about fraud.
  • But also, speak up when reporters and editors fail to do their jobs. Write a letter to the editor of newspapers and outlets that use misleading or false headlines, that repeat lies uncritically without providing context and facts, and that provide opportunities for lies to spread. Or use social media to contact editors to express your disappointment. Use your growing media literacy to discern and amplify truths that are backed up by good evidence. 

Together we can work to build more solid footing and common ground by reading beyond headlines, fact-checking our news, and demanding accountability in our media.

About the Author

Carly Goodman is a historian and the Communications Analyst and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at AFSC.

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