Mark Hammermeister / Flickr Donald Trump...
Mark Hammermeister / Flickr

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump had a column on Wednesday scolding media outlets and The Hill in particular for continuing to pump out headlines that merely repeat whatever lie Donald Trump has settled into on any given day.

Most Americans don’t follow Trump on Twitter but come across his tweets on a regular basis. Many, if not most, Americans also rely heavily on headlines to convey news to them. Meaning that many Americans learn about what Trump says in his tweets through the summaries that appear in headlines.

That’s why a headline like the Hill’s is a disservice. It provides no context for Trump’s claim, acting instead like a retweet of Trump’s false assertion across another platform. What Trump tweeted is false, and news outlets should make that as clear as possible when covering his tweets (or his statements more broadly), including in headlines.

The claim in question was Trump’s assertion that there is “no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” which is either an intentional lie or evidence of dementia. North Korea still has every nuclear weapon they had last week; there is no denuclearization plan, or anything more than a few sentences saying denuclearization sure might be nice someday. But that is how Trump wanted to sell the meeting, and so that’s what he said, and so headline writers announced he said it while, in many cases, making no effort at all to inform readers that it was a lie.

And the problem with that is both very simple and known to every headline writer in America: Most people scanning through their social media feed see only the headlines. They don’t click on the articles. They couldn’t possibly read every article. So they get their news from the headline, and anyone who saw The Hill‘s version scroll quickly by would see a baldfaced lie from a political leader with absolutely no hint that it was, in fact, untrue.

This isn’t a minor concern, either. Language researchers have determined that repetition of ideas and frameworks is key to embedding them deep in the public psyche; that’s not just the scientific basis for every advertising slogan and jingle you’ve ever heard, but the key public tool of authoritarian governments. The incessant repetition of Trump’s preferred language for his imaginary successes and imaginary scandals “shapes the way we think,” whether we like it or not.

“Fake news” proclaims that the news is fake. The use of “fake” is designed to delegitimize the press itself. Trump also uses strategic name-calling to undermine the Russia investigation, tagging it as a “witch-hunt” by the “deep state” in an attempt to shift blame. It’s false, but when the press repeats it, his narrative wins.

The media perpetuated a Trump lie by repeating “spygate”, which falsely characterized the FBI informant as a spy. Once made, such a mistake by the press is hard to correct.

The basic fact is that Trump lies, and does so daily and, apparently, uncontrollably. Our press, long bludgeoned by professional partisans for any hint of bias, has “corrected” for that bias by studiously repeating false political claims, considering the mere fact that someone important said them to be the “news” but evaluating the truth of those claims only in passing, if at all.

What is required in an informed democracy is at the very least for liars to be identified as lying. Any democracy that does not have at least that is merely choosing leaders by lot, or worse, by their skill in creating propaganda. It stands to reason, then, that repeating propaganda slogans and false information as the key information readers will see is not helpful, and is in fact damaging.

So at the least, maybe headline writers should steer clear of doing that.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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