Thoughts about Lawrence and Schafer’s ‘Debunking Sarah Palin’

Regina Lawrence and Matthew Schafer recently published “Debunking Sarah Palin: Mainstream news coverage of ‘death panels.’” The abstract, slightly edited:

This study examines how traditional media reported on [Sarah Palin’s] ‘death panels’ claim that was immediately debunked by several fact-checking organizations. Our content analysis of over 700 newspaper and television stories shows that, to a significant degree, journalists stepped outside the bounds of procedural objectivity to label the ‘death panels’ claim as false, often without attribution. Many stories, however, simultaneously covered the claim in typical ‘he said/she said’ fashion, thus perhaps extending some legitimacy to the claim.

The paper sent my thinking toward two questions in particular related to argument in journalism.

What assumptions are in play?

'Death panel' imageFirst, this paper is relevant to discussing whether, when, and why arguments from authority might be appropriate for journalists to use. But there must be mutual understanding between reporter and audience of the assumptions involved.

A journalist’s assumptions about whether a source’s claims require verification change depending on the source’s characteristics. These characteristics can include the source’s position (“candidate for office,” “national security official”) and how they acquired that position (elected, appointed).

Lawrence and Schafer write that, given variations in whether journalists unexaminedly report claims:

An important question therefore becomes, under what conditions will the news go beyond reflexively reporting what key political actors say to engage in verifying the accuracy of those claims for their readers or viewers.

That journalists make these assumptions doesn’t seem shameful. But as a reader it would be helpful to know what the assumptions are.

Additionally, from a research perspective, the paper notes that scholars have spent time examining the situations where journalists do or don’t grant sources authority sans verification. I would be interested to see more of that work and whether the work judges the assumptions as justified or not. Where might I start?

Does it matter if they didn’t debunk ‘death panels’?

Second, the paper is primarily concerned with whether and how newspaper and TV journalists tried to show that Sarah Palin’s “death panels” claim was false.

Should we care, as consumers of journalism, whether journalists labeled the claim as false? Yes, I think, if the truth of the claim is important to a conclusion of the article.

Regina Lawrence commented on the subject of the articles in an interview with CJR:

We were actually surprised to find just a small handful of stories that actually looked at the policy discussion around so-called death panels. The death panels claim may be false in and of itself, but it comes from a larger, very important question: How are we going to provide for people who are going to have end-of-life counseling in a way that gives doctors incentive to do a good job of it, knowing they’re going to get reimbursed? That’s kind of the heart of the policy issue there. That’s what morphed into this claim about government bureaucrats deciding who will get care and who will not. We found literally less than five stories, if I remember correctly, in this whole sample of hundreds of stories, that actually talked in real depth about end-of-life counseling and the complexities and challenges of that. When the death panels claim came up, it quite often came up in a political context, as part of a political debate, part of day-to-day coverage of politics more than of policy.

It seems conceivable that the truth of the “death panels” claim was irrelevant to at least some of the conclusions in this sample of journalism — particularly the stories that were “part of day-to-day coverage of politics more than policy.” So in those stories, journalists might not have bothered with it, reasonably.

But would the truth of the claim have been irrelevant to many, not just some, conclusions in the sample? That’s harder to say. If the truth of the claim was relevant to many of the conclusions in the sample, then the findings of the paper would be troubling.

Furthermore, why bring the “death panels” claim into the picture at all if it was irrelevant to the conclusion? Why would they mention it if they didn’t need to debunk it for their own claim to be supported? If they needed to mention the claim, then why didn’t they debunk it with evidence?

‘Death Panel’ image by Heidi and Matt (CC BY-NC-SA)

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