In My Words: Checking facts is not enough

In this latest offering from the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Associate Professor of Journalism Amanda Sturgill focuses on how public officials often use deceptive language or specious arguments to distort the truth. It draws from her new book, “Detecting Deception: Tools to Fight Fake News,” published in August.

This column appeared in the Burlington Times-News, the Greensboro News & Record and the Winston-Salem Journal. 

By Amanda Sturgill, associate professor of journalism

It should not surprise you that sometimes public figures are dishonest. It has always been that way, so fact-checking is one of the very first lessons covered in journalism schools. Truth matters, and it’s our job to get it right, we tell our students. Repeatedly.

Amanda Sturgill, associate professor of journalism

There’s another kind of accuracy that matters, too, as public figures abuse logic and language to distract and confuse. And those who share news, whether they are paid reporters or people who retweet interesting things on their own accounts, need to be aware so they don’t help deception to succeed.

It’s a tough time to be in the truth business. In recent years, public figures have racked up falsehoods by the tens of thousands while shouting “fake news” to discourage journalists and audiences from questioning what they say. Dishonesty always happens, but the volume of falsehoods presented a real challenge. After an adjustment period, the media are getting better at pointing out fact errors in real time.

But getting it right is more than spelling the name correctly or making sure the percentages add up. It’s more than just checking the facts: it includes spotting when people are manipulating the truth to try to deceive. These same public figures can make it seem as if they are saying one thing when they are in fact saying another.

Recently, a statement from White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany greeted a new tell-all book by saying “Michael Cohen is a disgraced felon and disbarred lawyer, who lied to Congress. He has lost all credibility, and it’s unsurprising to see his latest attempt to profit off of lies.”

It’s true. Cohen was convicted of a felony and disbarred. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the content of the book is false — even the boy who cried wolf was honest once, and it mattered. You have to evaluate the message itself, even if concerns about the messenger mean you give it a harder than normal look.

Public figures of all stripes use these kinds of deceptions. You may remember President Bill Clinton claiming his lying in a deposition was up for interpretation. “It depends on what your definition of is, is,” he said, trying to use confusion about past and present to get out of consequences for his actions (it didn’t work). He’s far from the only politician to be slippery with language.

President Lyndon Johnson was asked in 1970 if the country had sufficient funds to tackle both poverty and overseas interests. He replied that it was a bad argument because he could take care of both his daughters — a bad analogy for national budgeting. In 2004, then California Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger called some members of his legislature “girlie men,” in a second-level parody that descended into a personal attack.

Today, people arguing that athletes should play and students and teachers should fill classrooms during a pandemic note that the death rate from COVID-19 has declined. That’s true. But there are other, meaningful impacts of the disease that fall short of death. It’s deceptive to act as if those somehow do not matter.

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You also matter when it comes to deceptive arguments like these because of your potential role in continuing their spread. Research shows that most people get their news from social media, and personal referral through a share from a friend matters a lot. We also know that people often share links and summaries that they haven’t actually read — driven by the emotion of the post or headline. A scathing insult of one public figure by another can make you want to share your outrage or your schadenfreude, depending upon if you agree with it. But you’ve really just spread a personal attack.

Public figures design their words to deceive and to encourage this kind of misinterpretation. So you, as a reader for yourself and as a publisher for your contacts, need to consider not just what they say, but what they mean. Always consider if a statement is based on good evidence before you repeat it.

History shows public figures of all orientations won’t hold themselves to a higher standard. It’s up to us to not repeat the deception.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.