Lessons from Election 2020 & COVID-19: It Took a Pandemic to Teach Us All a Lesson…On Privileging the Lie

About a month into a nation-wide shutdown, Time Magazine editor Tom Weber tweeted out a series of CNN screenshots that caught my eye. In each one, the President was giving his usual briefing, but the headline revealed something else going on.

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Today, two days after the still contested Presidential election, Trump is at it again, claiming voter fraud in the ballots that states are counting. He has at press time, sued the states of Michigan and Georgia to stop the vote counts. Both cases have been denied and the counting goes on. And so does Trump, giving grand speeches and posting tweets about fraud and stating that has already won the election.

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Check out the headlines. This is a departure from the policies dictating Trump’s falsehoods when reporting them in the news cycle. Prior to these, the headlines were very different.

Instead of addressing the inaccuracies in his speech — that the response was going well and the government acted appropriately at the beginning of the epidemic — the station simply labels the briefing. The pundits later took down every lie made during the briefing. However, that comes after the President had gone before the American people, unchallenged, and lied. What CNN did was the same as so many other news outlets since Trump started running for office. They privileged the lie.

Although they reversed this tactic for post-election coverage, it is still something that Americans must learn.

What is Privileging the Lie?

Journalists are charged with reporting and analyzing the news. The audience trusts them to vet sources and to identify (for the public) any problems encountered during coverage as well. This includes lies and falsehoods. Many reporters do perform this duty. Unfortunately, in the age of clickbait and search engine optimization, attracting viewers and readers hinges on the headline. So, that headline needs to be catchy, juicy, and have a hook solid enough to luring hoards of traffic to the website. In the process of driving traffic to increase profits, many news publications and shows end up privileging the lie.

They let the lie lead, going forth unchallenged into the public. In doing this, the publications appear to affirm the lie, even if they later have show disparaging the comments and editorials shredding every false word that was said. The lie still went out, unhampered, to the ears of the public. Because it was allowed such freedom, the appearance is that the lie must have some element of truth. As the briefing is replayed without the challenge to the words spoken, they slowly become know as uncontested and many will believe them to be true.

“By printing the lies, especially as headlines, they [the news organizations] are promoting and encouraging them [the lies].” Glenn Kessler.

Jamison Foser explains in his thread on Twitter about the 2016 election, using the following graphic.

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Take a moment and explore this thread. Foser’s breakdown offers a look into the phenomenon and how it may have affected past elections.

What’s the Harm In It?

By promoting a lie before the truth, the lie gets the appearance of accuracy. And, the President has made more than a few dangerous lies during this pandemic.

In the video linked here, C-SPAN plays the briefing where the President runs clips of Fox News pundits repeating lies about the onset of the coronavirus. The news station allows this to go on without a headline disputing these falsehoods. By allowing the lies to play undisputed, CSPAN privileged the lies and therefore gave them more power than the truth.

There is danger in these lies. Saying that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu is harmful because it gives people an excuse to let their guard down. Saying that the danger is overstated gave too many Americans the idea that “the media” was lying about the deaths and cases. This is the reason why the virus has made a resurgence recently.

A month after the briefing coverage, armed anti-mask mobs demanded an end to the social distancing practices, despite their need to save lives in this pandemic. The number of cases at that time had risen to 1.06 million Americans and the death toll at 61,472 Americans. Today, seven months later, the number of cases stands at 9.8 million and 234,000 deaths.

What is the Lesson for Students and Teachers?

There are a few lessons that teachers and students can learn from the many examples of privileging the lie that has occurred in this pandemic.

1. Review your sources carefully. Vetting a source by looking at the headline is never a good idea. It is especially dangerous these days. Headlines like the following mislead the reader before they dive into the text. They make it seem like Trump’s suggestions are valid and not the least bit dangerous. The C-SPAN video is a post-briefing narration that disputes the suggestions. However, because these statements were made uncontested, they have more weight than the truth — that injecting disinfectant is dangerous, even deadly.

2. Prepare your titles carefully. Titles are the part of the papers that the students, and their teachers, value the least. Students usually slap on a title moments before printing that copy to turn in during class. Even professional writers carelessly slap on a title before filing a story to an editor. But careless titling leads to privileging the lie. Write titles that clearly and truthfully to describe the writing, to be safe and accurate.

3. Dispute the lie the moment it's heard. Teachers can go further to prevent privileging the lie in the classroom by clarifying and disputing lies and other forms of misinformation when they are told. This is especially necessary if the lies are reiterations of the ones that come down from our President.

a. For example, in my undergraduate Eastern Religions class, my professor told us that we would be learning about the religions of the Asian continent. On the first day, a male student declared that he was Christian, and he did not believe in any of the religions we would learn. My professor immediately disputed him by saying that in her classroom, we will respect all religions. He could leave if that was too much to handle. I never saw him in class again.

My professor immediately addressed the falsehood and corrected the student before he could inflame the class.

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Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

We Must Learn to Always Put the Lie in the Proper Context

We are in a new world where daily updates on the pandemic are vital. Right now, we are also being inundated by election news that changes by the minute as well. We are also still controlled by a news cycle that constantly needs to be fed. Unfortunately, this means that the headlines may continue to privilege the lies from the White House. Although we have seen the news stations and publications put more care into the election coverage, we also know that such care may fall to the wayside when news breaks.

As the audience for all of this news, we need to be able to discern when the lie is being privileged so that we can act accordingly. This may also mean getting our news from other sources. Several local news stations have announced that they will stop carrying the Presidential briefings because they spread misinformation. Seek these stations out if the briefing themselves are too confusing.

I must note that the press covering the White House has been doing a great job of calling out the lies. However, the stations need to support their journalists and call out the lies in the headlines onscreen. Waiting for the lies to prove themselves false is not an option. Just ask the families struggling under the virus surge right now.

Jonita Davis is a writer, film critic, and professor. She’s a member of NABJ, AAFCA, a Rotten Tomatoes critic, and an adjunct professor.

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