Why news media should turn fact check worthy “news” into a “truth sandwich”

Too many news stories are focused on accuracy (is the name spelled right) rather than truth (is that propaganda). In the age of COVID-19, we need truth sandwiches, not stenography.

Three or four people sitting around talking about news events is not news. It’s opinion. [It’s also a helluva lot cheaper to produce than news stories filling the same air time.]

The op-ed section of newspapers and magazines (print or online) is not news. It’s opinion.

By definition, opinion has a point of view. Opinions are not neutral.

Straight news stories focus on who, what, when, where, how and why (WWWWHW) [1]. These questions get increasingly difficult to answer as you work through them sequentially. Why is the stuff that keeps detectives, investigators and mystery novelists up at night.

The first paragraph (the lede) or opening soundbite is crucial for setting the stage for a story. In straight news, the writer tries to answer as many of those questions as possible, in an even-handed manner. A “neutral” stage.

The straight news formula may work fine for routine car accidents, fires, trial results, stories where facts are not disputed. The sky is dark at night (maybe).

Most of what passes as “TV news” today – and much of what happens in “print” (textual-based reporting) abandoned WWWWHW eons ago.

Very little about COVID-19 is “straight news” and very little is neutral.

For example, reporting daily COVID-19 death counts is straight news. A form of stenography. Big numbers create drama.

Reporting in terms of per capita deaths or seven-day moving average or compared to another jurisdiction or country, is more valuable to the reader (context) but is inching towards analysis. It takes longer. It may not be as sexy or generate as many clicks.

Case study. This Washington Post story looks like straight news:

The coronavirus [who] may still be spreading at epidemic rates [what] in 24 states, particularly in the South and Midwest [where], according to new research that highlights the risk of a second wave of infections [what] in places that reopen too quickly or without sufficient precautions [where].

But here’s the next paragraph:

Researchers at Imperial College London [whocreated a model [what] that incorporates cellphone data [how] showing that people sharply reduced their movements after stay-at-home orders were broadly imposed in March [when]. With restrictions now easing and mobility increasing with the approach of Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer, the researchers developed an estimate of viral spread as of May 17 [what].

Two key words in this paragraph: “model” and “estimate.”

This is clearly newsworthy information.

But how many lay people have the skills, knowledge and wherewithal to analyze how methodologically sound that research and the resultant model might be?

< 🦗🦗🦗🦗🦗>

Case study: the Santa Clara County research pre-print claiming that the coronavirus infection rate was far greater (more asymptomatic cases) than public health experts had been (still are) estimating.

Where did this “news” get legs? In part, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (Friday, 17 April 2020, 4:28 pm ET, paywall) which ran the same day that the research was published on a pre-print server. And FOX News, of course.

There were many use-the-news-release to write a “straight” news story that Friday as well (e.g., CNBC, Palo Alto CA, The Guardian).

Over on the digital water cooler that is science Twitter, peers were far more skeptical.

So were other public heath officials

Not only do most of us lack the knowledge to assess that study, most reporters lack that knowledge as well. They were trusting the reputation of the institution (Stanford) and the researchers. Besides, there was a news release.

Not disclosed: funding. (And apparently no reporters asked.) The study seems to have been partially funded by JetBlue’s founder, someone with a “vested interest in any research that makes the case that the lockdown is an overreaction.”

Postmortems (op-eds) acknowledged scientific pushback, weeks later.

What followed next was the academic version of a roast, with critics raising issues with the researchers’ recruitment method (Facebook ads), flaws in their statistical methods, and even the tests themselves—manufactured in China, and since banned from export.

A lack of the personal knowledge needed to assess truth (and risk) is why we rely on experts. The world is becoming more unknowable at the same time a growing number of us say we do not trust experts (analysis, op-ed, interview with author and the book).

I’ve seen no news organization release a mea culpa, apologizing for amplifying a news release. That’s because in the Santa Clara County study, reporters treated coronavirus research like any other “news” story.

In the process, they did a disservice to public heath because they “flooded the [news] zone with 💩” (Steve Bannon, 12 Feb 2018). The results were then politicized by those opposed to stay-at-home orders. Op-ed. A month later.

Now is the time for them – and us as news consumers – to be more skeptical, not less. This research isn’t “breaking” news but it’s been treated as though it were. Being first to amplify non-peer reviewed research is not unlike being the first report a disaster: truth is lost in haste.

Politicians are not neutral actors

When the WWWWHW formula is used to “report on” politicians making pronouncements (often just an opinion, sometimes factually wrong) it often leads to “he said, she said” stories (an odd form of stenography) with no judge present.

Thus when reporters treat political pronouncements as “straight news” they risk perpetuating deception, propaganda and lies.

Enter cognitive linguist George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate), who argues that statements that would flunk a fact-check should not be treated like straight news.

Instead, the story structure should use a “truth sandwich” (aka “reality, spin, reality”).

  1. Open with a statement of truth. “Always frame the truth first, because framing first establishes an advantage.”
  2. Call out the lie. Don’t “[amplify] the exact language.”
  3. Repeat and reframe the truth. Always repeat the truth more than the lie.

Today’s truth sandwich from Jay Rosen responds to Trump’s latest attempt to “flood the zone with 💩.” He is economical with words; the lede fits a tweet.

What can we do?

First, be aware of framing and our reactions. When the urge to share without thinking strikes, hit pause instead. No time to check it out? Use digital notepaper to save the article, tweet, Instagram or Facebook post, YouTube video.

Second, be skeptical of feel-good promises, whether from a politician or from a researcher. This is a long game, and our worlds may forever be changed.

Third, rather than share something based on an emotional response, use the Jay Rosen model. Rewrite and share the story as a short #truthSandwich (I would LOVE to see this become a trending hashtag!). It is not easy, but it is rewarding.

Unlike taking hydroxychloroquine, the answer to “what have. you got to lose if you do this” really is “nothing.” Well, nothing but a feeling of impotence.

At its heart, a truth sandwich elevates truth over accuracy. In the long run, it might help reverse eroding public trust in experts and maybe serve as a ripple that improves journalism. It might even jumpstart the recovery of public discourse.

Seriously, what have we got to lose?


[1] Yes I know it’s taught as who, what, when, where, why and how. I think why is the more difficult question, so for the purpose of this essay, I moved it to the end!

Image quote from The Atlantic.

Ran originally in 22 May 2020 issue of COVID-19 Memo from a News Hound 

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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