Subramaniam Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.
In late August, the news cycle in the U.S. appeared to be buzzing with a sensational allegation: The president’s interest in nuking hurricanes. It also happens to be hurricane season in America. Given the old principle of news judgment that “everything the president says and does is newsworthy,” there was a good chance that the presidential focus on this would drive headlines.
A CNN journalist decided otherwise. In her piece, “Why not bomb a hurricane? NOAA gets asked about it all the time,” that ran online on August 26, AJ Willingam took a smart approach. She debunked the question about nuking hurricanes straight off the bat, and demoted the allegation about the president’s interest.
This is as good an adaptation of the truth sandwich technique as you’ll find. After the manner in which the news media reported the Trump/Cummings/Balitmore tweets, I wrote this piece about the desperate need for breaking news orgs to adopt the truth sandwich more often. Simply stated, this allows reporters to sandwich a misleading fact or lie or sensational directive between slices of credible reporting. By not running a headline and leading with a sensational lie or quote, it cuts down the risks of digital misinformation getting more credence.
For this story, CNN framed the headline at a human interest level, and as one that the NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) receives often. In the first paragraph, the writer elevated the source of the question to not just one person holding the highest office in the country, but at the level of humans always having been interested in controlling nature. This is a line that the public is well aware of. (e.g. damming rivers for industrialization, seeding clouds for rain, etc.)
“It seems so unfair. In our endless human quest to control everything, the weather has heretofore eluded us. Why can't we make rain? Why can't we stop earthquakes?”
This was Willingam’s lede. This opening actually drives up the curiosity of people, more than giving credence to the possibility itself. Willingam then proceeded to get the NOAA to respond to the question in explainer style, which was good unpacking.
In between her opening and NOAA’s response to the sensation question, Willingam brought in the reference to the president’s interest in the idea.
“According to a report, President Donald Trump once suggested that the U.S. could try dropping a nuclear bomb into the eye of an approaching hurricane to... knock it off its course? Scare it away? Who knows. (For the record, the President has denied he ever suggested such a thing.)”
This is a poster child for thoughtful breaking news—an adaptation of the truth sandwich technique. To be sure, I checked if CNN, during August 26th and 27th also separately ran a piece with presidential framing in the headline itself. They did not. In contrast, most other breaking news outlets reported the president’s interest directly. We have to call out the media when they do things right, and CNN and Willingam did in this case.