How Do You Solve a Media Problem Like Trump?

The art of the television fact-check.

If last week was a collection of Trump + media coverage fail postmortems, this weekend we saw some attempts to forge a new way forward, to stem the same-old, same-old tendencies of candidate coverage that allow statements of fact and statements of fantasy to exist in the same un-checked space, an environment that, ultimately, helps enable Donald Trump.

Dana Milbank, appearing on CNN’s Reliable Sources, made the case for why the traditional coverage model won’t cut it.

“The instinct in the media is to say, ‘well, he’s going to be the Republican nominee, let’s cover him the way we’ve covered Mitt Romney and George W. Bush and John McCain,” he told host Brian Stelter. “My argument is, no, this is something fundamentally different. This is a character acting essentially outside our Democratic system and he needs to be covered differently.”

And for us, the most important fundamentally different thing is not Trump’s outsider status, but, as Milbank mentions later, “I think it’s fair to say [Trump] has a consistent record of being racist, and a misogynist, demagogic, talking about, you know, doing things that are unconstitutional in terms of targeting innocents and torture.”

“His supporters would say, ‘he doesn’t mean it when he says that,'” Stelter responds.

“Well, let his supporters say that,” replies Milbank. “We in the media should be saying, ‘this is something fundamentally different from what we have seen, certainly in modern times.'”

Whether Trump means it is irrelevant when it is being broadcast and reprinted ad nauseam, infecting the public space and encouraging those who definitely do mean it.

As for how to go about fact-checking Trump, especially in the much-needed area of television coverage, Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network head, Alexios Mantzarlis, writing in response to Stelter’s commentary during Sunday’s show, has some great suggestions for where to start.

For one, you call a lie a lie:

First of all, the fact check should frame a claim as being false clearly and succinctly. Replaying it with excessive prominence and no accompanying indication of its falsehood could lead people to confuse the claim for news, especially if they’re watching in a noisy place or turning on the television after the claim was introduced.

And in a visual space where onscreen graphics often feel superfluous and don’t seem to contribute much, a fact-check is a great way to make them useful:

Fact-checking on TV should use images and graphs. If it boils down to the host’s word against the candidate’s, viewers may choose to believe whomever they trusted more to start with. Instead, a TV fact-checker should be presenting sources prominently and visually. Fox News illustrated this in March, when it countered Trump’s flawed budget proposal with graphics that broke down federal spending figures.

Both great suggestions, but not ones we’re optimistic will be adopted with regularity.