Experts: Media 'shooting itself in the foot' with errors in Trump stories
Experts on journalism and media ethics are flatly rejecting the White House position that professional journalists are deliberately misinforming the public with inaccurate reporting on President Donald Trump, despite several high-profile errors by the media in recent weeks.
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was questioned Monday about Trump’s weekend tweets accusing media outlets of reporting vicious and intentional lies about him.
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"There's a very big difference between making honest mistakes and purposefully misleading the American people,” Sanders said. “Something that happens regularly.”
Trump was most irate over the weekend about a CNN report Friday morning that the network was forced to heavily correct later in the day.
CNN first reported that the Trump campaign was sent an email containing a link to documents obtained by WikiLeaks that had not yet been released on Sept. 4, 2016, which analysts on the network spent hours dissecting as possible evidence of secret collusion.
It later turned out the email was sent on Sept. 14, after the documents were made public, a revelation that deflated the significance of the scoop. This led Trump to declare that CNN should change its slogan to “THE LEAST TRUSTED NAME IN NEWS.”
While experts were shocked and dismayed by the errors, they see no evidence that the misreporting was deliberate.
“I am hard-pressed to believe most of the [reporters] on the main news outlets where the mistakes were made are doing this intentionally…. They have reputations. They know it could cost them their jobs,” said Scott Talan, a former journalist and a professor of public and strategic communication at American University.
“You don’t go into a job that is unstable, poorly paid and incredibly demanding if you’re there hoping to mislead people,” said Nikki Usher, a professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and author of “Making News at The New York Times.”
That said, W. Joseph Campbell, author of “Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism,” called the big mistakes that have been made recently “astonishing.”
“I can’t think that that would be even remotely true, but who knows?” he said of Sanders’ suggestion the false reports are intentional.
According to CNN, its initial report was based on descriptions of the email provided by two unnamed sources. Within hours, CBS and NBC also had sources confirming the email with the same incorrect date. The Washington Post obtained an actual copy of the email before reporting the right date.
It is not the only mistake the media corrected in the last week. CNN also revealed Monday that new information has altered the context of one of the network’s major reports earlier this year on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ contacts with Russian officials.
A story published in May reported that Sessions did not disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador on security clearance forms despite being asked to list “any contact” with foreign governments. Sessions maintained that the FBI told him not to include meetings connected to his work as a senator.
At the time, legal experts expressed doubt that Sessions would have been given that guidance. However, CNN has now obtained copies of emails indicating that is indeed what the FBI told Sessions.
Other outlets have also had to walk back significant reporting in recent days, a pattern Trump seized upon at his rally Friday to attempt to discredit the media itself.
"Did you see all the corrections the media has been making?” he said. “They're saying sorry -- they've been doing that all year. They never apologize."
Earlier that week, several news outlets reported that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank for Trump’s financial records, a claim the president’s attorneys strenuously denied. Those reports were later updated to clarify that only the records of people and entities close to Trump were sought.
The previous Friday, as a media frenzy surrounded the surprise guilty plea by former national security adviser Michael Flynn, ABC’s Brian Ross reported incorrectly based on a single source that Trump had directed Flynn to make contact with Russians prior to the election. Ross was later suspended and removed from all future reporting on Trump.
In addition to blasting Ross and CNN for their mistakes and demanding journalists be fired, Trump lashed out at Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel for briefly tweeting a misleading image of the size of the audience at his Pensacola rally. Once Weigel learned the photo was taken before the event began, he removed the tweet and apologized.
Experts cited several factors that may be playing into these errors.
“Journalists are facing a really difficult constellation of demand for speed, huge hunger for new information, their own drive for competition…. That leads to a situation where mistakes can get through and quite honestly sloppy reporting can happen,” Usher said.
Don Irvine, chairman of conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media, posited that a desire to take down the Trump administration has made some reporters reckless.
“I think that there is the media has definitely had this anti-Trump agenda that makes it more easy to make these kinds of mistakes,” he said.
Talan does not entirely disagree.
“What they are doing on purpose, which is unfortunate, is rushing,” he said. “Part of it is 24-hour news, part of it is shrinking economics of news, and part of it is everyone wants to get Trump. He’s the biggest target on the planet right now.”
According to Campbell, who worked as a journalist for 20 years and now teaches at American University, an “over-eagerness” to uncover incriminating information about Trump is part of the problem, but he rejected the notion that the demand for speed is any more of a factor now than it has been for decades.
“Journalism has been wedded to speedy delivery of the news for a very long time,” he said.
Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, acknowledged that speed is not a new concern, but she suggested it has grown more imperative.
“I think speed and competition have always been a problem but digital means of publishing give us that immediate means of getting information out there,” she said.
Whatever the reason, all agreed that journalists are inadvertently handing Trump and his allies ammunition to obliterate their credibility.
“The news industry with these mistakes are shooting themselves in the foot,” Talan said, adding that if they do not become more cautious, they will soon be shooting themselves in the face.
A poll released by the Poynter Institute last week revealed increasingly polarized perception of the media. Three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic-leaning respondents said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, but only 19 percent of Republicans said the same. Among those who approve of Trump, more than 60 percent agree with him that the media is “the enemy of the American people.”
A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted in October found that nearly half of voters, 46 percent, believe the media fabricates stories about the Trump administration, while only 37 percent said the media does not invent stories about Trump.
“Trust is the product of a long-term relationship,” Usher said, “but trust can be broken almost instantly.”
Amid the president’s demands for punishment of journalists who made mistakes, reporter Carl Bernstein recalled a significant error he and Bob Woodward made in one of their early articles on the Watergate investigation, wrongly stating that a top aide to President Richard Nixon was implicated in grand jury testimony. On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday, Bernstein questioned whether he would have been fired for such a mistake in the modern media environment.
“Reporters, journalists make mistakes,” he said. “Our record as journalists in covering this Trump story and the Russian story is pretty good. Especially compared to the record of Donald Trump and his serial lying.”
Many observers would dispute the proposition that coverage on Trump and Russia has been “pretty good.” Even before the last week, numerous stories about the investigation have been corrected, amended, or retracted after breathless headlines screamed across social media.
“The headline, the sound bite seems to take precedence over the fact that if they spent a little more time vetting, they’d get to the truth and they wouldn’t have all this egg on their face,” Irvine said.
CNN opted not to unmask the anonymous sources behind its botched WikiLeaks story because the reporters do not believe they were deliberately misled. The sources who misinformed Ross about Flynn and other outlets about Deutsche Bank subpoenas similarly remain hidden.
Critics have suggested sources providing inaccurate information about Trump should be outed, if for no other reason than to protect other journalists from being waylaid by tempting leaks from the same bad sources.
“The media is hungry for a lot of these stories…,” Irvine said. “If they knew the source was not credible, if another outlet had said, ‘Watch out for this guy,’ that would clear things up a lot.”
Campbell said such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.
“I just don’t think we’re at a point where that should be a rule, but I don’t think it should be foreclosed either,” he said.
If sources do remain anonymous, experts say standards for using them need to be higher, because even an article claiming dozens of anonymous sources will be viewed skeptically by readers.
“Credibility and trust in media suffer when audiences see unnamed sources in stories,” Culver said.
With stories of the scale and importance of those surrounding Russian interference in the 2016 election, Usher warned reporters are putting themselves at risk of being played by people with ulterior motives if they cannot get a named source.
“If you’re trying to do the kind of reporting that can take down the president, at some point you’re going to have to have somebody on the record,” she said.
All experts interviewed for this story agreed that journalists must slow down and ensure that facts are verified before publishing, as hard as that may seem at times.
“I think newsrooms need to operate with one standard, and that standard is it is more important to be right than to be first,” Culver said.
Campbell recommended reporters follow time-honored techniques of wire service journalism and welcome criticism of their work before it is done, because the public rarely remembers who tweeted out a bombshell a few minutes before anyone else.
“A professional approach to peer review would be very helpful and not to be so enamored with the speed because there are no awards for getting it wrong first,” he said.
No matter what time it is or how long it takes, Talan emphasized the importance of following established editorial guidelines, seeking independent confirmation of sources, and resisting the pull of competition.
“It seems obvious to say these things, but news is not news if it’s wrong,” he said.