Monday, January 18, 2021

Some ideas for countering the big lie about the election

By Al Cross, Director and Professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

A week ago in this space, I wrote that journalists, including those in rural areas friendly to President Trump, have an obligation to counter his big lie of election fraud that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Today, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan and American Press Institute Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel offer some ideas for doing that.

"Stop relying on shorthand," Sullivan advises. "Too often, even the most credible journalists who are trying to cover the disastrous effects of the Big Lie explain it by sprinkling phrases into their reporting like 'baseless claims' or 'without evidence' — and seem to expect them to do all the work. But that’s simply ineffective."

“People don’t notice this boilerplate language after a while, or even begin to bristle at it,” Rosenstiel told Sullivan. “Engage in verification and explanation, not labeling.”

Sullivan offers some examples, such as learning how people absorb truthful information: "Rosenstiel says we need 'to understand the neuroscience of creating receptivity for reasonable but skeptical audiences.' Part of that involves going back to journalism fundamentals. We need to provide evidence and verification, instead of blustery claims and outrage — the bread-and-butter of cable news."

Right, but Sullivan's first example, I think, has pitfalls. She quotes a January national security report in the Post: “By mid-December, President Trump’s fraudulent claims of a rigged election were failing in humiliating fashion. Lawsuits were being laughed out of courts. State officials, including Republicans, were refusing to bend to his will and alter the vote. And in a seemingly decisive blow on Dec. 14, the electoral college certified the win for Joe Biden.” All true, but that passage has adjectives and other characterizations that would make many Trump believers stop reading.

As I said last week, rural journalists know best how to present their readers with information that they may find difficult to accept. In his Lake News in Calvert City, Ky., in a county that Trump carried by well over 3 to 1, Editor-Publisher Loyd Ford told his readers last week that he was going to follow the example that conservative commentator Paul Harvey set in 1970 when he went against his usual grain and told President Nixon that the invasion of Cambodia was wrong:

Loyd Ford
"With Paul Harvey’s words as my guide, I say this to my family, friends and people I don’t even know, 'I love you but you are wrong.' You are wrong if you believe the Presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump." Ford added several other one-line points, then: "There have been nearly 60 different lawsuits filed to overturn election results in several states, some Democrat and some Republican all of which were rejected by the courts. In almost every case those rejections were made because the president’s lawyers could not produce any proof of wrongdoing."

That's much like what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Jan. 6, as I noted last week. Many Trump believers dismiss McConnell, but he remains the strongest and most reliable Republican voice in the country. He doesn't talk much, but when he does, it matters. 

Writing in McConnell's hometown Louisville Courier Journal, author Molly McCaffrey has advice for the public at large, which makes it especially applicable to rural and community journalists:

"What those of us who are mere citizens need to do is reach out to friends, family, and neighbors who feel alienated by our government to the point that they see Donald Trump as their only hope. And by reaching out, I do not mean attack or criticize. Nor do I mean tell them what to do. That’s clearly not working. We are all born with the intuitive understanding that it’s wrong to hurt other people. But there is a group of people in America that now feel violence is justified. Telling them they’re wrong is only going to make them dig in deeper. These people feel abandoned by their government for reasons that seem absurd and offensive to many Americans — they certainly seem that way to me — but that doesn’t change the fact that that’s how they feel. They want someone who will listen to their concerns. For the past several years, Donald Trump has been that person. It’s time for that to change. It’s time for the rest of us to be that person."

1 comment:

Andrew said...

We have to respect their feelings?