Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Journalists Can Change the Narrative on Asylum

Today I opened the Washington Post to see an article by Nick Miroff where he repeats Trump calling the asylum process a "scam." Reporters regularly include charming little Trump quotes like this in their reporting. I get it; these are the official statements of the US President. These are the justifications for sweeping changes to our asylum process. What are reporters supposed to do, not quote him?


The rules of press engagement under Trump have been endlessly debated at this point, but usually this argument has centered around to what extent reporters should call out Trump's lies. Less attention has been paid to the negativity created by Trump's trolling, even when his statements are then carefully debunked. Just repeating the words "scam" and "criminal" over and over again in reference to asylum-seekers and migrants make it hard to think of anything else. Trump knows this; it's why he does it.

So far, most newspapers like WaPo have limited themselves to publishing Trump's statements and then publishing fact checks debunking these statements. This isn't working because (1) Trump is the President so his words carry more weight than anyone else's and (2) most people read the nasty Trump headline but not the careful fact check.  As a result, the toxic lie resonates while the truth gets buried.

If journalists want to keep quoting Trump because it drives story-clicks, adding context about Trump's motives and veracity might help. This a high level of cognitive dissonance in newspapers these days, where headlines quoting Trump calling other people criminals without any evidence often sit side by side with articles detailing 400 page reports on Trump's own criminal behavior. It would be nice if newspapers could combine some of this reported, such as by saying, "President Trump, who has been accused by the former FBI director of criminal obstruction of justice, calls asylum system a 'scam'."

I know this breaks with current journalism practice, but what is the point of a system that is no longer helping ordinary readers obtain the information they need?

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