ABC, NBC, CBS and Univision, four major television networks in the United States, sent a clear message to the world last week: Television is not — and cannot be — like Twitter. The broadcast networks have attentive editors and journalists who won’t be used as tools of disinformation. This is something we should all celebrate.
On Nov. 5, President Donald Trump called a press conference at the White House to comment on the results of the U.S elections. After saying, falsely, that he had been re-elected, he stated that the U.S. was counting “illegal votes” to declare Joe Biden as the new president. Trump was clearly suggesting massive electoral fraud.
That day (and, still, as of Nov. 11), no media outlet and no official government entity in the U.S. had data regarding the existence of “illegal votes.” Many websites and political analysts were even arguing that the idea of a major voter fraud situation in the United States was nothing more than a dangerous hoax on social media.
When the anchors of the four networks heard Trump’s first “accusations,” they decided to cut the president’s audio and share with their audiences that — in fact — there was no evidence of the president’s incendiary claims about the electoral process.
Their decision was controversial, but points to the right direction, especially if you think about new ways to tackle mass disinformation.
By cutting off broadcast of Trump’s speech, ABC, NBC, CBS and Univision decided not to spread Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations to more than 22 million people — the sum of their average audiences. By leaving only Trump’s image on the screen, those four broadcasters found a way to protect their followers. Moreover, they did what a journalist should when a source deliberately offers a bad piece of information. They reported it.
Some colleagues have asked me if this decision comes dangerously close to censorship. I say it does not.
First, there is the fact that all viewers actually did receive Trump’s message that night. The anchors explained — in detail — what the president was saying the minute after they suspended his audio. But they also immediately did their job, by offering their audiences the public data that was available at that time, plus a powerful journalistic analysis. They didn’t censor him. They simply refused to spread or amplify what he said because he could not substantiate it.
In times of social media, live streaming and Zoom, it felt good to remember that televised journalism can be really strong. It was also great to learn that, from now on, those who want to spread disinformation will have to think twice and learn that they aren’t entitled to have unproven allegations disbursed via the airwaves.
There is no doubt that the steps taken by the U.S. broadcasters established the beginning of a new journey for journalists around the world. In some countries, reacting to disinformers just like ABC, NBC and CBS did will no longer be news, but a necessity.
Adopting consistent criteria from now on is, however, vital. As a fact-checker, I must remember that the battle against disinformation requires methodology and transparency, so all stakeholders receive the same treatment. Yes, Trump deserved the treatment they gave him. But so does anybody who thinks they can get away with it. The networks should be applauded. It would be unprofessional (and sad) if they don’t give the same treatment to disinformers in the future.
Read this article in Spanish at Univision.