The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why untrue tweets from Trump shouldn’t be unchallenged in headlines

Consider this headline.

In one sense, the headline is true. President Trump did indeed say that there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea. He said it in a tweet, where he often says things meant to make himself look good. That’s what his comment about North Korea was meant to do, of course: Suggest that he, Trump, had succeeded where decades of negotiations had failed, curtailing the nuclear threat from the rogue North Korean state after a summit with that nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

That’s not true, of course. North Korea is as capable now as it was a week ago of striking other countries — including, it seems, the United States — with nuclear weapons. Were North Korea to say tomorrow that it plans to destroy all of its weapons, it would take an extended period of time for that to happen, during which the nuclear threat from that country would still exist, however diminished. North Korea didn’t even say that this week, mind you, instead committing in broad strokes to a nebulously defined “denuclearization.”

Most Americans aren’t on Twitter, and those who are mostly don’t follow Trump’s account. A poll from Gallup last month found that only 8 percent of Americans follow Trump on Twitter, and only half of them read most of his tweets. That’s one out of every 25 Americans who, by themselves, would have read the claim in Trump’s tweet.

And yet Gallup also found that more than half of Americans see, read or hear “a lot” about Trump’s tweets in general. Another quarter hear “a fair amount.”

So while 4 percent of the country goes on Twitter to read Trump’s tweets, 75 percent of the country ends up hearing about them. How? From the Hill, as above, or from The Washington Post, which included a moderated version of Trump’s claim in our headline.

That headline matters.

A survey released Monday by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research looked at how deeply Americans read into news reports. About 4 in 10 Americans reported watching, reading or listening closely to the details of news stories several times a day — about the same percentage who said that they simply scanned headlines multiple times a day.

It’s likely that some people fall into both groups, scanning headlines multiple times a day and reading some stories more closely on the same timeline. I fall into both categories, for one. But it’s also likely that some people fall exclusively into one category or the other, scanning headlines multiple times a day while, say, reading stories in more depth on a weekly basis.

We know that there are a number of people who rely mostly on headlines because of a survey released in 2014 by the same groups. Then, they were direct: In the last week did you read any — any! — in-depth news stories beyond the headlines?

A majority said they hadn’t.

So let’s put this together, assuming that each of these individual survey results is accurate.

Most Americans don’t follow Trump on Twitter but come across his tweets on a regular basis. Many, if not most, Americans also rely heavily on headlines to convey news to them. Meaning that many Americans learn about what Trump says in his tweets through the summaries that appear in headlines.

That’s why a headline like the Hill’s is a disservice. It provides no context for Trump’s claim, acting instead like a retweet of Trump’s false assertion across another platform. What Trump tweeted is false, and news outlets should make that as clear as possible when covering his tweets (or his statements more broadly), including in headlines.

Space constraints are always an issue, and I confess that I haven’t always adhered to this rule. But 96 percent of the American public has chosen not to follow Trump’s Twitter feed and voraciously consume his thoughts unfiltered, according to that Gallup poll. Reiterating his arguments without additional context in a headline risks doing little more than assuring that many of that 96 percent end up with the same inaccurate information in their media diet.