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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Breaking News Needs Nutrition from the ‘Truth Sandwich’



Subramaniam Vincent

Photo credit - National Institutes of Health

Subramaniam Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own. 

As a technique, the ‘Truth Sandwich’ is well known in journalism and yet not consistently invoked where we need it most -- to inoculate the free supply of lies masquerading as quotes on Twitter.  

When President Trump tweeted about Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings, calling him a name and disparaging Baltimore, Bloomberg Politics quoted him in their headline here. All the major media outlets, both left- and right-leaning, wasted little time in breaking stories headlined directly on the president’s tweet. His tweet became the story. Needless to say, this happens over and over again.

The problem with this approach from a news judgment perspective is the blanket application of the principle that “everything the president says and does is newsworthy.” Particularly in the social media era, this principle can simply no longer be accepted.

That the president tweeted certain words is true. But does what he said bear elevation to being the story itself? People who have particularly been following the Cummings-chaired House Oversight Committee’s work in investigating the presidency would know that the president is frustrated by its doggedness. Cummings is from Baltimore. Clearly, the president’s attack on Cummings and Baltimore was political, and he was lashing out.

Many ethical issues arise from the practice of letting the president’s tweet about Cummings drive the story itself. They are complex and not clearly resolved -- even when the story itself may be accurate. Here’s a shortlist:

  • Journalists often make a virtue of their role of “informing the public,” and that needs to start at the headline. Headlines are the first lines of information in the news, and millions of us don’t read past them. In showcasing the racism angle at the headline level, we’ve tipped the news arrow with poison instead of information.
  • The truth serves the common good. For most people, the Congressional proceedings were crucial context to the underlying politics; that context likely got missed in the initial news cycles. Many of us may not be tracking the proceedings and the simmering and escalating tensions between President Trump and the House committee. By not elevating this truth to lead the story, news judgment is not helping the common good.
  • From a utilitarian standpoint, it is not clear that the resources (time, attention, news cycles) spent on leading with the president’s words have produced more good than harm in comparison with leading with the big picture. (See the “Truth Sandwich” alternative approach below.) When we click the headline to read the article, the headline’s impression has already formed and reaffirmed some belief we already had. In fact, even if you read the first few paragraphs of the Bloomberg Politics story, you will never know there is a Congressional oversight context to Trump’s lashing out. The opportunity to tell people about an important ongoing conflict in the country’s check-and-balance between Congress and the executive branch was lost.
  • Journalism ends up unfairly favoring agenda-setting by a few powerful people, when lies and insults lead the story. In effect, a politician has now used a single tweet to drive his narrative on Cummings, to redirect the debate, and let that unfold in the media over hours and days of news cycles. Fairness must apply not merely to the treatment of people as sources, but also to narratives.

The greater story about Trump’s attack tweets did filter through over time, as different media outlets started explaining what was going on (as, for instance, in this Washington Post story).

The alternative, consistently use the Truth Sandwich

Imagine a different headline:

“As pressure from House Oversight Committee escalates, President lashes out at Elijah Cummings”.

A breaking story with this headline would help the reportage relay a more complex reality to the readers. It stems from a journalism technique recommended as a way to handle lies, fabrications and distortions: the technique called the “Truth Sandwich.” Its elements are simple enough:

  • Don’t lead (headline, first paragraph) with the distortion or lie or rant or discreditable accusation.
  • Go to the big picture underlying it, and synthesize a headline that shows that dynamic to the public.
  • Ascertain the details that are likely to have precipitated this particular politician into saying this, and then present the lie in that context and debunk it. In this way, you are still reporting the truth (even when there are multiple perspectives on it), rather than amplifying (or giving oxygen to) the lie.

Many journalists are already doing this. It is in breaking news, however, that this practice desperately needs to be adopted more consistently. From an ethics standpoint, it is more accurate, educates the public better about the underlying context, and respects their time and attention (even in the aforementioned Bloomberg piece, the reporter does offer the underlying context later in the piece—much less effectively).

Perhaps some reporters worry that the Truth Sandwich would present a cause-and-effect relationship between the underlying political process (in this case the Congressional oversight) and the lashing out. The long history of how specific leaders operate and lash out when under investigation is a specific type of behavior that the public understands. Taking the story into this context and clarifying what is confirmed and what questions remain unanswered would diminish the amplification of the lies and slander.

To be fair, the “Truth Sandwich” is most challenging for breaking news as opposed to enterprise and long-form journalism. Breaking news is driven by the pressure to produce constant content volume. Twitter abounds with “free quotes.” The tendency to blindly and opportunistically apply journalistic craft to quotes sourced from Twitter is highest in breaking news. 

But there is no free lunch in the world of narrative generation and the battle for attention. Free quotes are meant to drive someone else’s narrative, not the journalists’. Leaders, and especially masters of social media gaming, are already adept at using their tweets to set their own narratives and make their positions known to their bases directly. 

Journalists know they ought to act independently at the level of news judgment and headline crafting. That means not latching onto every sensational tweet and turning them into stories.  Act independently and minimize harm, says the Society of Professional Journalists’ code. Leading with a prominent source’s lies or slander does neither.

Aug 21, 2019

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