Subramaniam Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.
Related Video: Subbu Vincent discusses the difficulties of reporting on a pandemic in a live, breaking-news, and social media world. (Essential Ethics: Journalism and Media perspective from the Ethics Center)
The SARS-Cov-V2 pandemic has exposed one hidden and unethical commonality that breaking news media, especially television and social media, share. At the very instant that a political leader disinforms (intent) or misinforms the public in a live press conference, algorithms and journalism share the same flaw. Both cannot tell the difference between evidence-based claims and dubious ones. Both cannot verify or corroborate the validity of the claim in that instant, and yet both systems offer massive power of amplification to the speaker. And furthermore, there is an unwillingness to collectively examine the deep risks of this flaw, especially when a public health crisis of global scale is unfolding in real-time.
There are many examples, but let’s take the latest one from this past weekend, and one that has received wide discussion. Lupus Patients Can't Get Crucial Medication After President Trump Pushes Unproven Coronavirus Treatment, went ProPublica’s headline in a report authored by Charles Ornstein. The president claimed that hydroxychloroquine could be used to treat COVID-19. This received expected coverage on television news. The president also posted it directly on social media (I am not linking to it on purpose). Ornstein broke the real story. This claim has led to hoarding, putting Lupus patients and others at even greater risk. The situation spiraled this week. On March 24th, ProPublica reported that doctors were fraudulently and unusually prescribing chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for themselves, friends, and family, driving up a national shortage. This is one example.
News Values in the Press and Social Media
In journalism culture in democracies, we obsess with covering a nation’s elected leader live. In American journalism, a core “news value” helping editors make judgment is “What the president says and does is newsworthy.” For instance, on March 23rd, the Poynter Institute argued this in its journalism newsletter, The role of the press in the coronavirus pandemic is to provide truth, even if that truth is grim: “It’s critical to see what Trump and his team are doing and how they are thinking even if we don’t like or agree with it. When it comes to the president and his actions, it’s necessary that the media does not shield the American people and, in effect, protect Trump from the public.”
For their part, several social media platforms have written into their community standards that politicians have a newsworthiness exemption. This is literally a translation of “all that politicians say and do is newsworthy,” that editors hold sacred, to algorithm-speak, that social media titans also value. “In open democracies, voters rightly believe that, as a general rule, they should be able to judge what politicians say themselves,” said Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications for Facebook, in his announcement about the exemption last year. There is one distinction for American journalism, which traditionally offers the highest latitude to presidents, not so much “every politician,” but social media offers this latitude to all politicians.
For the journalistic media, this value has always been problematic because of one assumption it makes: political leaders in a democracy make and hold themselves to an underlying commitment to practice democratic and ethical safeguards in their own speech, given their position of power. In other words, the press’ offer of favorable determination of newsworthiness to top political leaders presumes their good behavior, even as the former holds them accountable. This was simply never going to work for the worth of journalism as a public service as a general principle that stands the test of time. In these bitterly partisan times in particular, politicians around the world have not cared, especially when it works to give them reach in an era without gatekeepers. This is especially the case for leaders elected out of populist movements who have spun out lies and demonstrable falsehoods.
But one might argue that lying and misleading people to score goals for oneself and one’s own side has long been a part of behavior political leaders’ display. Journalism has dealt with it, so what is new?
The interconnection of breaking news and social media at Internet scale and algorithmic amplification is a relatively new affordance for politician-led misinformation altogether. (See my colleague Irina Raicu’s related post on levers of power.) Both systems of exception, from traditional news media and social, are feeding off and multiplying the benefits to leaders who abuse their power of speech. Politicians (just as great PR communicators) have learned to take advantage of traditional media’s false equivalence problem, and social media’s reach-affordance together. The president’s tweet on hydroxychloroquine stands on Twitter even as we speak, retweeted over 100K times and liked 380K times. Social platforms have continued to justify protections for speech by politicians as a primary value trumping everything else (pardon the pun).
(For the record, In my piece on The Ethics of Facebook’s Justifications to Exempt Hate and Lies by Politicians, I dismantled Nick Clegg’s articulation point by point. Twitter has the same exemption policy.)
One might also argue this: Granted that social technology and journalistic media share a similarity at the breaking moment of news, there are differences afterward, so my claim is over-simplifying things. For instance, social media will simply let such posts stay—there is no refereeing to fact-checkers because of the newsworthiness exemption—and it may go unstoppably viral. Traditional journalistic news media, on the other hand, have multiple human journalists across outlets working on coverage, not bots. Sooner or later, they correct false claims. And of late, many news outlets have started labeling “lies” as such. These happen later in that day’s cycle or in due course, one can argue and hence the public does get the “full picture”. For instance, Bloomberg quickly headlined its story on the president’s take that the FDA had approved hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19, as a false claim.
These differences between the media systems are minor. They do not make the original problem go away because the propagation does not have the same reach as the original misinformation in the first place.
One, the interconnection with the social media fabric, where clips and slices of everything said is posted and re-shared millions of times into and out everyone’s narrative lenses. Two, the first impression of misleading health speech on millions of people who trust a political actor’s views on a drug may already be damage done. All of the neuroscience lessons on how the brain works around belief and confirmation bias - especially at times of deep anxiety and uncertainty - has shown how hard it is to “correct after the fact”. Therefore the primary speech cycle will drive the kind of behavior downstream that is hard to simply “undo”. In the case of pandemics unfolding with layers of crisis on top of each other, there are all kinds of risks involved.
It is time to take a fresh look at the exemptions that both the breaking news media and social media are giving politicians, especially the most powerful leaders. Yes, this is not easy to do and the reasons will fill up ten articles, not one.
The Coronavirus pandemic is the latest and loudest warning shot to us in democratic societies that our media “newsworthiness” value system -- be it social or journalistic - has a deep flaw that we must collectively muster the will to address soon, despite the discomfort it brings in cross-examining one of the “holiest cows” of our news culture.
For the American Press, there are several ideas. Jay Rosen has asked the press to simply stop covering the White House’s coronavirus briefings live, and has provided an alternative emergency journalism plan. Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at the Washington Post, has also asked for stoppage of live coverage. There is no shortage of ideas. One idea that holds great promise and still does not ask TV news channels to stop covering White House press conferences on coronavirus is the Truth Sandwich technique.
If the airing of a press conference is deferred by just enough time to edit segments of false and misleading claims, anchors or journalists could lead with the truth, and then run the claims with captions that say “misleading/false,” and then run the truth again and continue unedited with those parts of the footage that were truthful. The American Press Institute, in Getting it Right: Strategies for truth-telling in a time of misinformation and polarization, has a detailed section, by Susan Benkleman, on the Truth Sandwich. Benkleman called the Truth Sandwich a strategy in responsible journalism for amplifying truth over falsehoods. “Once a decision is made to go with a story about misinformation, journalists must then frame it in a way that ensures amplification of the truth, and non-amplification of falsehoods,” says Benkleman.
For social media platforms, there are clear starting points. Twitter held a substantial public consultation in 2019 on the labeling of synthetic and manipulated media before announcing its policy. Likewise, it could hold one on newsworthiness exemptions to “politicians,” including a narrowly scoped definition for the term itself. Yes, this is likely to invite dueling and polarizing factions to the table. But so be it. Facebook has instituted its content oversight board this year. Perhaps the first basket of cases it could send to its board for review is posts by leading politicians on coronavirus and COVID-19.
In sum, the elite who determined the newsworthiness exemption for political leaders yesterday, do not have to exclusively determine it tomorrow. It’s time to make this determination afresh in an inclusive and democratic conversation itself. Otherwise, we will likely allow media behavior—both social and traditional news—to develop into a new systematic risk for society itself. It probably already is, we would do better to not discover this after, as a society, we’re on the cliff and in freefall.