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Fact from Fiction: Discovering Truth Despite Candidate Dishonesty and Convoluted Election Coverage

March 29, 2016

Sarah Linton ’19 – Women in Leadership

 

When Donald Trump declared his presidential candidacy in June 2015, mainstream media and political analysts alike failed to anticipate his success. As the possibility of Trump winning the Republican primary moves from laughable to probable and Republican voters have expressed a desire for the party to unite behind him, there has been a scramble to explain the phenomenon. Regardless of whether his appeal stems from the pervasive frustration with broken political system or his moral absolutism, Trump is positioned to remain in the media spotlight for at least the rest of the year.

Americans have tuned in to the primary debates at an unprecedented rate. The first Republican debate back in August drew twenty-four million viewers, and the subsequent have averaged fifteen million. With increasing attention to the candidates’ direct portrayal of themselves, dishonesty also becomes a chief concern. An analysis of several hours of Trump’s press conferences and speeches reveals he exaggerates reality or blatantly lies just about every five minutes. Trump is far from an anomaly in this respect. Politicians have been long criticized for misconstruing the truth to show them in a more favorable light. But this election cycle has highlighted the reality that campaigns and the daily news do not offer an accurate picture of candidates, their views, and their career histories.

Candidates and cable network taglines do not need to be taken at face value. Rather, there are alternate ways to learn accurate information about the people fighting for votes:

 

1.) Fact check.

With the proliferation of digital media, anything a candidate says can be picked up by every major new outlet and broadcasted loudly and repeatedly, often in incomplete form or lacking context. Add in frequent candidate dishonesty, and the result is an incredibly warped image.

But digital media has also ushered in a new era of rapid fact-checking. It is not necessary to take candidates at face value, or even spend hours doing painstaking research. News headlines can be misleading, but some media outlets have also dedicated themselves to providing detailed analysis about candidate honesty.

The New York Times fact checks specific statements from debates. The Washington Post has an entire subsection of news dedicated to rhetoric analysis. And Politifact is a fact-checking website run by staff of the Tampa Bay Times, and they sort through a wider range of candidate media—debate claims, campaign speeches, and even television advertisements. Candidate statements are ranked from True (such as Ted Cruz’s claim that he has held civil conversations with protesters at his campaign events) to Pants on Fire (such as a Trump campaign ad’s use of footage showing Mexicans “swarming over our southern border;” the footage was from Morocco).

 

2.) Know the political leanings of sources.

Even when journalists are dedicated to reporting the truth, many news sources have an agenda. Whether the publication’s ownership dictates its political slant or reporters are given the liberty to present their agenda as much or less fact, sometimes even “reliable” media can be less than straightforward.

Because many publications are quick to defend their own reporting accuracy, it can be difficult to tell who actually supports what and how that affects news coverage. Unless a newspaper comes out in explicit support of a candidate, like the New York Times editorial board’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton, many biases remain subtle or technically a non-issue. But selective reporting, even said articles are accurate, also contributes damagingly to a confusing and inaccurate media landscape.

A good start is to know the audiences of publications. While conservatives are more likely to mostly consume media that conforms to their views, general readership still reflects the views of the media organization. A Pew Research Center poll ranked sources by ideological placement of readership, evaluating for consistency of liberal or conservative views. Broadcast stations in general have a more moderate audience. MSNBC, despite its liberal reputation, has a viewership fairly similarly to CNN and NBC.

A more time consuming route is to evaluate the stances publications take on issues on a case-by-case basis. The space that a source will dedicate to coverage of an issue, and the nature of the coverage, provides a more complete picture than generalizations about viewership.

 

3.) Research candidates beyond current media coverage.

Politicians understandably find their views changing as their political careers move forward. However, there is a distinct difference between reevaluating an opinion in the light of new considerations, and shying away from old decisions to appeal to a broader base. Hillary Clinton is often criticized for flip-flipping, and Donald Trump regularly moves from one extreme opinion to the opposite.

In order to understand how a candidate would behave in the presidency, it is important to take into account not only his or her presently conveyed intentions, but also the decisions of the past. One easy comparison is to look at a candidate’s liberalism or conservatism relative to the rest of the party. The political and economic analysis site FiveThirtyEight ranked possible 2016 Republican candidates by past voting decisions in a chart, and analyses of Democratic candidates are also available, though they are not as concise. Data like this provides a roadmap of where politicians are likely to fall on certain issues.

There are also resources that detail candidate voting histories and stances on different issues. The non-partisan research organizations Vote Smart and OnTheIssues straight forwardly aggregate information about candidates’ positions and voting records. The Council on Foreign Relations has an entire section of their website dedicated to breaking down where each presidential hopeful falls on foreign policy. Many lobbying groups with specific policy area concerns will also compile information on different candidate stances.

 

Ultimately, there is no shortage of valuable and truthful resources to facilitate understanding about the contenders in the 2016 election. They are simply often buried under sensationalist headlines and flagrant dishonesty from approval seeking candidates.

 

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