To Play or Not to Play

By FASPE Journalism Fellows Christine Rushton, Ian Kullgren, and Dustin Volz

What should journalists do when it comes to covering falsehoods? If coverage amplifies misinformation and distracts from other issues, is it better not to cover it at all? September's "Sharpie-gate" incident on the accuracy of President Trump’s trajectory map for Hurricane Dorian again put the problem in a glaring light. Outlets like CNN covered Sharpie-gate breathlessly, while others barely noted it and instead chose to dedicate coverage to the administration's latest energy and immigration policy moves.

Vox called out those who dedicated days of air time to the errant map, saying they played right into the President's tendency to feast on feuds with the media. Critics pointed to other important stories that went by the wayside, like Vice President Mike Pence's patronage of a Trump property while traveling on business, or the bizarre developments in the UK's Brexit negotiations.

The Washington Post, however, said while the media danced along with the President’s moves on Twitter, reporters again lost sight of the larger problem. Trump offers misinformation and false claims to the public regularly: journalists must determine which of these to cover, and how. On top of that, the New York Times reported that the Secretary of Commerce threatened jobs at the agency responsible for contradicting the President's map, further complicating the controversy. But by that time it was clear the issue might have been more significant than a Sharpie-edited map, was anyone paying attention anymore?

Instead of brushing off these numerous occurrences, we need to seek out the deeper problems. In this case, not that a president altered--without factual basis--a weather map during a hurricane, but that this move expected support on penalty of discipline or firing. In focusing on the map doodles, did journalists miss the bigger picture?