August 18, 2020

I want to lend my support to an experiment on how to solve a serious reporting problem. Important people tell lies. Journalists seek to expose those lies and the bad intentions behind them. The exposure of a lie can spread the lie. Do I ignore the lie and hope it does not become poison in the body politic? Do I report it, check it against the facts, and leave it to the public to render judgment?

Or is there another way?

I am late to the game, but my tardiness has now let me examine the opinion of journalists, scholars and critics, represented in a Twitter sequence that cites New York University professor Jay Rosen, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor, retired UC Berkeley professor of linguistics George Lakoff, CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter, and Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.

The proposed antidote to political lying even has a name now, which I first heard during a conversation on “Reliable Sources,” Stelter’s CNN show. Call it the “truth sandwich.”

It derives from the work of Lakoff, an expert on strategic language and the framing of civic arguments. His proposed formula, summarized on Twitter, goes like this:

Truth Sandwich:

  1. Start with the truth. The first frame gets the advantage.
  2. Indicate the lie. Avoid amplifying the specific language if possible.
  3. Return to the truth. Always repeat truths more than lies.

Rosen, a north star among academic critics of the news media, tweets: “Some lies and acts of disinformation are too important to be ignored. But repeating them in news accounts only helps them spread. What to do? Position the troublesome claim between true statements, like a sandwich.”

Rosen offered an Aug. 13 example from Alcindor: “It’s been a few days since VP nominee Kamala Harris joined Joe Biden’s ticket & birtherism attacks have begun….a Trump campaign advisor is openly questioning whether Harris is eligible to be on the ticket. Harris was born in the U.S. & is clearly eligible.”

Rosen’s reading of this tweet: “First state what is true. Then introduce the truthless or misleading statement. Then repeat what is true, so that the falsehood is neither the first impression nor the takeaway.”

My modest contribution to this idea will come from the world of practical rhetoric, used in journalism and literature. But before I get there, I can’t resist tweaking the name of the strategy. Critics of Lakoff are way ahead of me. An Aug. 5 column in The Wall Street Journal by Crispin Sartwell argues that Lakoff’s solution to manipulating the people is to find a different way to manipulate the people. The headline: “‘Truth Sandwich’? Baloney!”

Let’s think about the phrase “truth sandwich” for a minute. By turning a report into a sandwich, I have turned the reporter into a short-order cook. This appeals to me in a New York City tabloid, working-stiff kind of way. The reader is hungry. I serve up something tasty.

What kind of sandwich do you want? Ham and cheese? Tuna? BLT? Whatever the reader orders, the stuff that defines the sandwich will go in the MIDDLE. So, in a sense, Yamiche Alcindor has not served up a “truth” sandwich, but a “lie” sandwich. The lie is in the middle. The bread provides the pieces of truth to contain the lie. Tweaking the Journal: Truth on the outside. Baloney in the middle.

In a rhetorical sense, we can refer to this as “emphatic word order.” This strategy is so important in all of public writing that I list it as No. 2 among my 55 top writing tools: “Order words for emphasis. Place emphatic words in a sentence at the beginning and the end.”

My favorite example comes from the tragedy “Macbeth.” There is a scream offstage. A messenger enters and announces to the ambitious Thane of Cawdor: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

As my students and colleagues know, I never tire of parsing these six words. I would have written it “The Queen is dead, my lord.” But Shakespeare is up to something in his version. He uses two commas, which invites the actor to slow his delivery for dramatic effect. The Queen is so important she comes first, the subject of the sentence. The courtly etiquette, “my lord,” not essential to our basic meaning, is tucked in the middle. The news, the nut, the tragic epiphany — “is dead” — comes last, where it resonates.

The shape of that — very important, not so important, even more important — bears the structural elements of our proposed sandwich.

In the necrology of the news craft — the language of death — traditionalists might accuse Shakespeare of “burying the lead.” Of course, to place the most important element first would make the actor sound like Yoda: “Dead the Queen is, my lord.”

In spite of the top-heaviness of news stories and the narrative arteriosclerosis of the inverted pyramid, journalists have their way of honoring a good ending, usually in the form of a “kicker” — a clever sendoff.

What I am saying here is that journalists understand positioning as a form of emphasis — even news judgment. The most common editorial gesture is to take something down in the story and move it up, giving it greater attention. The second most common editorial gesture is to take something less important and move it down in the story.

The position of least emphasis turns out to be the middle. As the great Jacqui Banaszynski once confessed: “I have been praised for my leads. I have been praised for my endings. But I have not once been praised for my middles.”

In a larger context, the sagging middle is a problem in news writing and reading. Without a reward for the reader in the middle — an anecdote, a sparkling quote — the reader heads for the exit. In the compressed formats of social media, this is less of a problem.

Of course, a writer can choose to emphasize something by placing it in the middle. Shakespeare offered dramatic high points in Act 3 of a five-act play.

Or consider the first sentence of Sylvia Plath in her autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar”: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” That jolt in the middle — about electrocution — will recur and build to the moment when the main character is given shock therapy after a suicide attempt.

So, yes, the writer can place emphasis in the middle. But the result can look bulgy, distorted, a big snake trying to digest a turtle.

We think that forms of news telling have existed forever. The truth is that they were all created — the inverted pyramid, the human-interest story, and now the tweet — to solve new problems and take advantage of new opportunities.

We have a new problem to solve. A big one. Let’s get cooking.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at roypc@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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