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Ben Bogardus An outbreak of ‘If-true-itis’

January 28, 2019

An outbreak of “if true-itis” is spreading through newsrooms across the country. It peaked Jan. 18, when BuzzFeed News posted an article claiming Special Counsel Robert Mueller had evidence President Donald Trump told his former lawyer to lie to congress. The story instantly spread around the world, via social media. “If true,” many reporters said, it could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.

The problem is, no other news outlet could verify the story. Instead, they reported what BuzzFeed wrote, frequently adding the qualifier “if true” because they didn’t know if the article was true or not. Still, they decided to report it anyway.

This turned into a big embarrassment later that evening, when the special counsel’s office took the rare step of saying key elements of the story “are not accurate,” making it the latest in a series of unforced errors by reporters covering President Trump, and giving fuel to his charges that reporters are putting out “fake news.”

Reporters are taught to “get it first, but first, get it right” and to independently verify each fact that they tell to readers and viewers. That’s because news is well-researched and confirmed facts, not speculation about the impact stories will have, “if true.”

Following this model, a responsible new site or TV station shouldn’t report what a rival reporter is saying, until their newsroom can verify the information. However, over the last few years, orders to “confirm what they just said so we can report it” has turned into the troubling “well, the story is already out there, so we need to report it, too. Just make it clear we haven’t confirmed it yet.” The rise of the internet and social media is to blame.

Forty years ago, when there was no internet or 24-hour cable news, national newscasts aired for 30 minutes once a day and people got most of their news from the morning paper and weekly magazines. There was no pressure to make stories “go viral,” and reporters didn’t have to rush an article to print or tweet out incomplete information in order to “own” the story. Editors had more time to make sure all the facts and sources were verified, especially on stories as serious as ones accusing the president of an impeachable crime.

Now, however, daily newspapers are “digital first,” publishing stories online all day long, instead of once per day. This allows less time for fact-checking and fine-tuning stories. There’s also more pressure to push out partial or incomplete news, so that readers or viewers will know the newsroom is working on the story.

Modern news sites are also under pressure to maximize their “clicks.” The more people click on a story, the more the site can charge advertisers. That’s led to writing with more urgency, drama and speculation about what could happen, “if true.”

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to turn back the clock on all of this. It’s therefore up to news readers and viewers to demand better, and be savvy news consumers. Some ways to break through the “if true” clutter include:

Don’t automatically believe what’s being “screamed out” online. Instead, read beyond a story’s headline, tweet or Facebook post. Those are often written in order to inflame passions, but the meat of the story may be more complicated.

Don’t rely on a single news source. While you may have your favorite TV anchor or newspaper columnist, or may love or hate MSNBC or Fox News, it’s important to check out competing news sites, to see how they’re covering big stories. You’ll often find they approach stories from different angles, giving you a different perspective on the story. After all, you’re only getting part of the story when you just read the sites you agree with.

Finally, don’t watch or read news sites that are infected with “if true-itis.” If their reporters can’t take the time to verify the news themselves, you shouldn’t make the time to support them.

Ben Bogardus is an assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University’s School of Communications. This op-ed was first published in ctmirror.org.

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