For all the talk about how so much of what Donald Trump has done is unprecedented, much of it is by now predictable, like, for example, his penchant for tweeting and saying things that are not true. There is plenty of precedent both for that and for media organizations who persist in creating headlines that make it seem as if Trump’s lies are true, giving those lies a false sheen of legitimacy and an extended half-life. See: Trump’s tweet falsely claiming millions of people voted illegally and the headlines that appeared to parrot those claims.
As Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported, many outlets later changed the headlines related to the tweet so that they reflected actual reality, rather than Trumpian reality, something we interpreted as an act of contrition.
It was a naive assumption on our part because it just happened again. In a press conference that Trump held with reporters at Mar-a-Lago yesterday, the first in over 150 days, he falsely claimed that 5,000 Sprint jobs were coming back to the United States because of him, and much of the press did its stenography thing.
The “breaking news” content mills online are enabling this pic.twitter.com/y1xxsKpSBR
— Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) December 29, 2016
2) Either way, what they’re doing is a stain on their craft, and a betrayal of the communities they claim to serve. Why does it persist?
— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) December 29, 2016
We maybe get some of the confusion, considering Sprint was fine participating in this alternate reality, as evidenced by its press release relating to the announcement, but some laudable follow-up action from Engadget’s Timothy J. Seppala got a Sprint spokesperson to admit the new jobs Trump was taking credit for were not his to take credit for: “This is part of the 50,000 jobs that Masa previously announced,” the spokesperson told Seppala. “This total will be a combination of newly created jobs and bringing some existing jobs back to the U.S.”
Regardless, Seppala demonstrates the lesson that should have been learned long ago regarding reporting on Donald Trump, or really, any politician who knows he or she can get away with say anything because a story and its hed is likely to lead with their quote, true or false. Verify first, instead of rushing to get out the same story with the same headline that dozens of other outlets will have, which collectively convey an untrue or misleading reality.
And as corollary, here’s a great explanation from Felix Salmon on why journalists need to be particularly careful about headlines:
What precious few media organizations ever worried about, however, was the fact that even with the best-crafted headline in the world, for every person who clicks on it, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who see it, digest it, and simply move on. People get their news from headlines now in a way they never did in the past, just because they see so many of those headlines on Twitter and Facebook.
Which means that, for any remotely serious news organization, the amount of traffic that a story drives has to be less important than the message that headline imparts, when it’s divorced from the article it sits atop. In 2017, it will be clearly inadequate to excuse a bad headline on the grounds that anybody who hasn’t read the full 4,500-word story is unqualified to pass judgment. Even people who get their news from individual news organizations’ apps find themselves scrolling through headlines these days at a rate which would have been unthinkable in the age of print. Getting news from headlines is entirely legitimate, and journalists can no longer hide behind the age-old “I didn’t write the headline” excuse.
Treat your headlines as the only part of the story people will see, because often they will be.