After interviewing U.S. Sen. Rick Scott about the challenges of rebuilding areas of Florida decimated by deadly Hurricane Ian, Margaret Brennan, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” attempted to wrap up with an unrelated question about recent “disturbing rhetoric” from former President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Trump had posted a social media message saying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a “death wish” and referred to McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, with racist language. Greene, speaking in October at a Trump rally the night before the Scott interview, falsely claimed Democrats want Republicans dead and “have already started the killings.”
“Would you rebuke those comments?” Brennan asked Scott.
Scott quickly deflected, claiming Vice President Kamala Harris had said people affected by hurricanes would get government assistance faster “if you have a different skin color.”
The difference: Trump and Greene actually said those things. Harris didn’t.
It’s nothing new for politicians to make false or misleading statements to the press and for those comments often to go unchallenged by journalists. That practice has evolved into a skillfully executed art in the era of Trump. But journalists increasingly are pushing back, even as some remain reluctant to do so to avoid the appearance of bias (a frequent allegation of scores of Americans who mistrust the press).
Brennan challenged Scott’s response, repeatedly bringing him back to her original questions as he continued to make political statements. “That’s not what the vice president said,” she told him at one point. “But I’m specifically talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene.”
Brennan took the right approach, said Angie Drobnic Holan, editor-in-chief of PolitiFact. It would be irresponsible for a journalist to leave the impression that a false statement is true or to allow a source to shift the focus of discussion to get out of answering a tough question, she said.
“When you have interviews, you have to circle back, and you have to press, even if it feels uncomfortable,” Holan said. “I tell our reporters polite persistence is what you’re going for. Just keep saying, ‘Thank you for that answer, but my question was about this. Could you please respond to this?’”
Holan, prominent journalists and other news media experts insist that contemporary journalism should not permit sources to, in effect, use professional journalists as conduits of misinformation, adding to the massive amount of false, misleading and fallacious content already confronting Americans every day. The SPJ Code of Ethics calls on journalists to be truth-tellers. Journalists fail in that role when they rely on outdated reporting conventions, such as giving equal weight to “both sides” of a story when evidence strongly supports one.
Untrue assertions make their way to mainstream news consumers in several ways. Common tactics sources use include false equivalence, whataboutism, bothsidesism and good old-fashioned lying. Well-meaning journalists play a role by allowing sources to give “their side” of an argument — true or not — out of a belief that fair, ethical journalism requires them to do so.
False equivalence refers broadly to situations where a source makes an assertion that two things that share some similarities are equal despite significant differences between them. Comparing Trump supporters’ Jan. 6, 2021, protest in Washington, D.C., to protests following the death of George Floyd is an example. The Floyd protests didn’t turn into a deadly riot that overtook the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn a presidential election.
Whataboutism is a form of false equivalence in which a source responds to an allegation by claiming that someone else did something similar or worse without addressing the substance of the allegation. Scott employed this tactic with his what-about-what-Vice-President-Harris-said response to Brennan.
It’s not uncommon for journalists to use whataboutism — not to suggest that one behavior is worse than another but to point out the hypocrisy of people or entities they cover, such as politicians or corporations. While sources can raise bothsidesism arguments (e.g., Trump’s “there’s blame on both sides” reaction to white nationalists’ deadly Charlottesville rally), reporters commonly use it to “balance” their stories. Bothsidesism treats two conflicting viewpoints as if they are equal in scope, severity or circumstance, although indisputable evidence supports one over the other.
News media companies, under attack by Trump as fake and enemies of the people, went to great lengths to prove they weren’t biased against him, including constantly deploying bothsidesism in White House coverage, Laila Lalami noted in an essay for The Atlantic. “They give space to both sides of any story, no matter what the facts show, leaving them open to manipulation by surrogates acting in bad faith and, more worrying, making it harder for ordinary citizens to remain informed and engaged,” Lalami wrote.
As an example, she noted that early in his administration, Trump defiantly allowed the government to shut down over funding for a border wall. Pundits, however, placed responsibility for the standoff on both political parties, which was echoed in mainstream coverage.
It’s understandable that a reporter might be reluctant to challenge the validity of a source’s statements, particularly if the comments are difficult to disprove. And they shouldn’t in such cases, said Joshua Darr, an associate dean, researcher and professor at Louisiana State University. Reporters should only dispute assertions when there is solid, provable evidence they are false. While it may be infuriating to journalists when a source lies, they can’t allow their anger to seep into their stories, he said. People can pick up on the tiniest of hints, such as loaded adjectives that reporters may argue are accurate and intended to provide more nuanced coverage.
Some journalists hesitate to call out false or misleading claims because it goes against what’s taught in journalism school or conflicts with the traditional approach practiced for years or decades. They believe they should seek sources to address all relevant sides of an issue and leave it to their audience to sort out the validity of the claims. They believe their role is appropriately performed on the sidelines, and news consumers often say that’s where journalists belong. Viewers, listeners and readers say they want “just the facts” — no commentary, no analysis, no background, no experts commenting on others’ comments — although there is debate over whether they really mean it.
A Pew Research Center study in 2022 found that older journalists were more likely than younger ones to say all sides of a story deserve equal news coverage; however, more than half of journalists overall said every side of a story doesn’t always deserve equal coverage.
Americans see it differently. Three-quarters of those surveyed said journalists should always strive to give all sides equal coverage.
But journalism practiced this way is not really journalism; it’s stenography. All points that can be raised in a story are not equally significant, and presenting them as if they are gives credibility to those without merit. Journalists should not just report what people say, they should put it into context. They should help their audiences understand the full story. They should not leave news consumers wondering who’s telling the truth if the reporter knows the truth. Darr said journalists devalue their jobs when they remove their news judgment from their work, because that’s one of the things news consumers are paying for with their subscriptions.
Authorities in journalism see pointing out lies as necessary to avoid giving news consumers a distorted view of reality. “If a lie is said, you have to call it out as a lie and debunk it using evidence. And we’ve started to see this,” said Susan Robinson, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of “News After Trump: Journalism’s Crisis of Relevance in a Changed Media Culture.” The evidence should be included in the story, she said.
Birmingham Times Executive Editor Barnett Wright cautions against impulsively abandoning the practice of giving equal weight to dueling viewpoints, particularly when there’s no compelling evidence to justify support for one over another. Often, the fairest thing to do is allow news consumers to decide which assertions are most credible, he said. Getting around such issues is sometimes as easy as declining to write a story in the first place, Wright said. It’s common during election season for people to give journalists dirt on candidates they don’t support or for candidates to make damning claims about their opponent. Some claims do not require much work to discredit.
“I had a county commissioner one time who was running for re-election, and he said, ‘I paved more streets than any other county commissioner in history.’ That was bullshit. I didn’t even waste my time writing a story because I knew it was bullshit,” Wright said. “I’m not going to write a story … and then have his opponent deny it when I know it’s demonstrably false.”
Several journalists applauded Brennan for fact-checking Scott in real time and not allowing him to mislead her audience. Doing it with Brennan’s deftness requires extra preparation, especially if the interview is being broadcast live, Holan said.
“If you’re going into a live interview without proper preparation, the source is going to be able to stump you, first off,” Holan said. “And then there’re all kinds of negative consequences from that — No. 1 being the viewer is not properly informed, No. 2 being the journalist looks foolish for not being
prepared and No. 3 being the source gets to set the agenda for the message they want to get out.”
Darr believes many people now expect journalists to call out lies and provide other context since they know technology has made it easier to do. It’s as simple as including hyperlinks in their online stories that take readers to the evidence that supports details of the story. Yet, there are other news consumers who don’t like anything extra because they wouldn’t believe it anyway. The challenge for news organizations is figuring which approach their audience wants, which Darr admits is difficult.
“People are far apart in their interpretations of what they think journalists should do, and there’s not a neat middle there, so journalists are caught in this paradox,” Darr said.
Local news outlets may make a business decision to not allow their journalists to be so aggressive because they believe that’s what their audience prefers. And while that may sound bad to some journalists, the alternative may be worse: allowing them to leave and get their information from less credible sources, adding to the growing number of misinformed Americans who make electoral or economic decisions based on flawed information.
Darr noted that national news — particularly political coverage — is different from local news in many ways, and there’s a market for it. People find national political news more engaging because it stimulates partisan identity, he said, and because of that, it’s less of a risk for national journalists to constantly challenge politicians’ pronouncements. But national columnists, including Paul Krugman in The New York Times and Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post, have complained that the national press too often allows politicians to weasel out of tough questions and distort reality, sometimes using illogical arguments, including whataboutism and bothsidesism.
Sullivan, who retired from The Post in August, gave an example in her final column. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, had announced several arrests as part of a crackdown on illegal voting in the state. The Associated Press posted a news alert on Twitter that captured his announcement: “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced criminal charges against 20 people for
illegally voting in 2020, the first major public move from the Republican’s controversial new election police unit.”
The New York Times, however, added helpful context in its tweet about the announcement: “Gov. Ron DeSantis said 17 people have been charged with casting illegal ballots in the 2020 election, in which 11.1 million Floridians voted. There is no evidence that election crimes are a serious problem in Florida or anywhere else in the U.S.”
“Journalists simply can’t allow themselves to be megaphones or stenographers,” Sullivan wrote. “They have to be dedicated truth-tellers, using clear language, plenty of context and thoughtful framing to get that truth across.” (She added that “the AP often does a good job with framing, and The Times sometimes blows it.”)
NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, speaking on the final episode of CNN’s canceled “Reliable Sources” in August, said he hoped the network wouldn’t allow politicians in particular to get away with fallacious rhetoric that misleads the public as it finds its footing
producing programming that’s more neutral and less opinionated.
“I hope that what we’re not going to see CNN do is institute some sort of false equivalence, where the extremism of one party is
balanced with the regular dysfunction of another party,” Deggans told Brian Stelter, who hosted the show for nine years. “We need to be free to call out when someone breaks the law, when someone breaks norms, when someone introduces prejudice and stereotypes into the public debate.” ,
Feature photo caption: “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan interviews U.S. Senator Rick Scott on the CBS show. (Photo courtesy of CBS)
Rod Hicks is director of ethics and diversity for the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @rodhicks.