November 30, 2016

On Sunday night, just as Americans were reaching the end of their Thanksgiving leftovers, their Twitter feeds were clogged with unfounded allegations of voter fraud by the President-elect.

As with the aftermath of Trump’s Hamilton tweetstorm, political editors and reporters were confronted with a vexing question: Is everything @realDonaldTrump tweets “news?”

The more important question is not whether to report on Trump’s tweets, but how. Many early headlines failed to indicate that Trump’s assertion was not corroborated by the facts. In the context of an election where fake news about the popular vote made it to the top of Google searches, neutral coverage of false claims risks further muddying understanding of the most basic facts about this election.

While the 2016 campaign has seen greater “in-line” fact-checking from reporters, there seems to be a reticence to use early headlines of new claims for corrective purposes.

Media predictions have not had a great year. So we may as well venture one more before 2016 is over: We’ll be seeing many more thinly sourced or outright baseless tweets like the one below. How should headline writers deal with them?

1. Remember that headlines matter

A study published earlier this year looked at links shared on Twitter to articles by five media outlets. It found that 59 percent of these links have never been clicked. Put another way, a majority of the articles shared were not opened. A sizable chunk of readers will only ever read an article’s headline.

2. Headlines really matter

In a summary of social science findings published in 2012, the authors found that “people may use the familiarity of a claim as a heuristic for its accuracy.” In simpler words: If you hear something a lot, you may be more likely to believe it. A more recent study of fluency concluded that “merely repeating a rumor increases its power.”

Given the onslaught of headlines relaying uncritically Trump’s false claim about massive electoral fraud, it is safe to say that many readers will have been familiarized with that statement thanks to the media. That makes it likelier that they will believe the claim, too.

3. Evidence-based headlines don’t require many more words

Press critic Jay Rosen writes that “if you are evidence-based you lead with the lack of evidence for explosive or insidious charges. That becomes the news.” While headline writers seek brevity and clarity, flagging a lack of evidence is not inconsistent with this goal.

False. Baseless. Without evidence. Flawed. Adding language that signals the claim made is not based in facts only takes one or two words.

4. Be consistent

Trump is neither the first nor the last politician to successfully fool the media into reporting an allegation without producing the evidence. In 2012, Dartmouth assistant professor Brendan Nyhan wrote about the “fact-checking fiasco” that ensued when Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (falsely) claimed that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes in 10 years.

Reid’s claim was relayed in much a similar manner to Trump’s tweet. While the fact that we seem to be exactly where we were four years ago isn’t heartening, it should be a reminder that false claims aimed at dominating the media cycle originate from all sides.

5. Uncertainty is OK

A lot of claims, including by President-elect Trump, will fall neither in the completely “True” or the completely “False” categories. Fact-checkers have long recognized the need for grading accuracy on a spectrum (“Half True,” “Two Pinocchios,” etc.) that reflects the shades of gray in political communication. In the rush to correct claims that are inaccurate, we should also be wary of overusing “false.”

Journalists who cover science have long had to address the trade-off between representing uncertainty and getting readers interested in the story with a catchy headline. In dealing with Trumpian tweetstorms, there are probably lessons political reporters can learn from their colleagues on the science beat.

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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