Since receiving considerable — and justified — criticism for helping Trump’s election with false equivalence coverage, media outlets have become better about adding “he said without evidence” caveats whenever the president says or tweets something outrageous. However, it appears for now that they’re applying that lesson to only one subject: the president himself.
This is a mistake, and it needs to be corrected ASAP.
Case in point: recent coverage of the planned, and now postponed, “March on Google” events. Marches in several U.S. cities had been announced by people angered by Google’s recent decision to fire a software engineer whose leaked manifesto questioned diversity efforts and used bad science to suggest biology might explain why fewer women work in tech. Presumed to include supporters of the so-called “alt-right,” the organizers have since delayed those marches citing “terrorist threats.”
And guess who they blamed for those alleged threats? The “alt-left” best known for having recently been called out by President Trump in his “all-sides-to-blame” press conference meltdown, which followed the deadly white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend.
On their Website on Wednesday, March on Google organizers said they were postponing the events due to “credible threats,” including one from the “alt-left” that purportedly referred to a planned attack by automobile. But their announcement offered no supporting evidence — no screen grabs, no voicemails, no quotes, etc. — and provided no specifics on the “relevant authorities” contacted.
Subsequent news coverage about the postponement varied in how such vague “threats” were reported. Many were appropriately straightforward or cautious; CNNMoney, for example, went simply with the headline, “The ‘March on Google’ is off,” while Mashable used the more skeptical, “Google protests called off after organizers blame Trump’s newest scapegoat.”
Too many other outlets, however, reported the news in more credulous terms. New York Magazine left out the “alt-left” part but still headlined its story, “Alt-Right Organizers Cancel the March on Google, Citing ‘Terrorist Threats.'” And Politico ran with the completely unsubstantiated headline, “Organizer puts March on Google on hold after threats.” In the accompanying story, it also noted that the group “received threats,” rather than “allegedly received threats” or “said it received threats.”
Journalists and editors need to keep working to do better. Remember: Every word you choose in reporting news, especially on powder-keg topics, matters. So choose them carefully and make sure they’re truly justified.