By contrast, Politico’s Tim Mak filed a story that violates all of the best practices described above. The story was given a straight news headline (“Joe Arpaio on Obama’s birth certificate: It may be fake”) and lede (“Arpaio said Thursday that his investigation has found there is reason to believe that President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, released by the White House last year, was a forgery”) that are likely to increase the familiarity and accessibility of birther claims among readers. Only at the end of his story does Mak bother to acknowledge the DOJ report into Arpaio’s practices and the fact that birther claims have been “widely debunked.” (Mak did not respond to CJR’s email request for comment).This is quite timely. We're about to enter into a very long general election campaign that's going to feature plenty of false claims not only by the campaigns, but also by quasi-independent and really independent outside groups, as well as attention-seeking pundits, bloggers, and more. We're going to have email chain letters and obscure web sites making all sorts of nutty claims about both Barack Obama and (presumably) Mitt Romney. And the press is going to have to figure out how to handle that.
Granted, it's possible that if they think about it in advance Politico and some others might just decide to go all sensational, all the time. That's always been a part of the news business, and I don't expect it to end anytime soon. But if they want to choose what Nyhan calls "best practices," my sense is that without careful, explicit planning it still won't happen. My guess (and others would know the reality of this better than I do) is that the reality of this is more murky than anything else; there are a lot of editors and producers who sorta want ratings no matter what, and sorta want good reporting no matter what, but don't stop in advance and try to sort out what should happen when those things come into conflict. Often I'm a fan of muddling through, but this is one case in which a carefully thought out explicit plan is probably a really good idea.