This morning, Axios published snippets of its conversation with President Trump. During this interview, the president–when asked by the reporter–said he was planning to kill birthright citizenship. Though this news was a pillar of his campaign, it nevertheless rippled throughout the country because of its blatant disregard for the U.S. Constitution, specifically the 14th Amendment. While discussing these plans, Trump also resorted to hyperbole and outright lies–something he’s known for doing.
Take this example: “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States … with all of those benefits,” the president said. On its own, this statement resembles a fact. Except, it’s not–it’s completely untrue. Dozens of other countries allow for birthright citizenship.
When first published, Axios quoted it uncritically–let the sentence sit there, like a cow on a hammock. Then, thanks to pesky Twitter responses, the reporter decided to include a parenthetical fact check.
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) October 30, 2018
Bravo, I suppose. Although perhaps it would be good to have this as a reflexive journalistic tool and not a defensive one. Yet even with this, other outlets followed suit. The AP, for instance, tweeted the president’s claim in earnest, only to delete the tweet later.
We have deleted a tweet about President Trump’s claim that the U.S. is the only country that grants birthright citizenship because it failed to note that his statement was incorrect.
— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) October 30, 2018
It seems this is a recurring problem:
Seriously, has this recurring problem occasioned not a single editorial meeting? An informal discussion about updating the process? pic.twitter.com/QDRe1I1Rus
— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) October 30, 2018
What all of this points to is the need to think critically when quoting. It’s not enough that a source–namely, the president (or, really, whoever!)–said something. It needs to be placed in context. And if it can be proven false, that should be pointed out. Even if it’s just a tweet with a quote, these soundbites are easily snatched up, taken out of context, and used to perpetuate false narratives. Already, there’s an alternate reality brewing online somewhere claiming that the United States is the only country to have such lax immigration policies.
We’ve been talking about fake news for years now, and it’s becoming increasingly common for people to mislead or outright lie in order to suit their own agendas. It’s depressing and tiring, but sadly the norm. The only way to fight back is to meticulously untangle and verify. That’s the media’s job. If Trump says something inflammatory, it may be newsworthy, but it’s just as important to contextualize the content.
The midterm elections are inching closer and closer, and we’re going to be hearing more Facts That Are Actually Lies. Now is as important a time as any to remind journalists and all other people in the media industry to fact check early and fact check often.