What to Call a Lie Part 3

Words. Words. Words.

When we last left off on the question of what to call a Trump/Trump admin falsehood, NPR and the New York Times had staked out opposing positions, with the Times still pro using the word and NPR still anti.

Since then, The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance took at look at how headlines from different publications handled Trump’s baseless and continuing accusations of voter fraud. (We were really self-conscious about what word to use just then.) The synonym salad included “unsubstantiated claim,” “false claim,” “wrongly blames,” “believes,” “continues to insist” “makes debunked claim,” “unconfirmed claims,” and so on.

The two outlets in LaFrance’s list that used the word lie in a headline were the New York Times and New York magazine. We also found the word used in headlines from the Daily Beast and Vanity Fair.

LaFrance’s conclusion? While declining to use the word “lie,” based on the argument that the thing that determines what is a lie–intent, is hard to ascertain and therefore a challenge to fairness is a point that “matters,” she writes, “But so do accuracy and credibility. Which is why it’s just as important for journalists to call a lie ‘a lie’ when they hear one.”

NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen also weighed in on the issue, surprised as she was that it was getting the attention it was among the larger policy considerations and concerns this week. But there was a lot of emails and social media responses to NPR’s decision, the majority of which disagreed with NPR’s position.

Jensen created a pro and con list of sorts. On the one hand:

I think a strong case can be made for very occasionally calling some of Trump’s statements “lies,” particularly the ones he repeats despite extensive reporting that has shown them to be untrue. NPR should use language that is precise. NPR indeed cannot be inside the head of the president (or any other figure who makes demonstrably false statements), but repeated assertions in the wake of incontrovertibly opposite evidence are certainly one indication of intent to deceive.

But she largely agrees with NPR’s position, applying the idea of credibility not as LaFrance did to the use of the word, but to the avoidance:

Routinely using loaded words to describe the actions and rhetoric of an unconventional president would satisfy some listeners, but also would undermine credibility among others. That’s all the more reason to tread very cautiously on this issue.

She also points to the other methods NPR has at its disposal, especially fact-checking and annotation, to debunk false claims.

We’re likely to see this issue come up again and again the next four years, and not just with the word lie. We have, for examples, already pointed out the problems of the both loaded and vague application of the term “populism.” The precision of language is a conscious and deliberate act that is sometimes put on the back-burner in favor of speed, a condition that often necessitates a reliance on overused and amorphous terms. But this administration is likely to present an unusually vigorous challenge to the over-reliance on fast and loose language. Expect a lot of dictionary parsing in the future.