What do news audiences think about ‘cutting away’ from news that could contain misinformation?

One of the defining moments of the media coverage during the 2020 U.S. presidential election came when several major U.S. TV networks decided to cut away from President Trump’s White House press conference on November 5th.

NBC, ABC, and CBS all cut their feeds mid-way through Trump’s sixteen-minute speech, taking the decision to stop broadcasting it to their viewers because of concerns over baseless claims about election fraud. Other networks, including CNN and Fox, broadcast the whole speech, but reported afterwards that the President had offered no evidence for his accusations.

Some observers have applauded the decision to cut away, heralding it as the moment when news organisations finally worked out how to deal with false and misleading claims from politicians.

But what do news audiences think about ‘cutting away’ from news that could contain misinformation?

Before turning to that, we should note that the decision made by some networks to cut away was unusual, and so were the circumstances surrounding it. The stakes were extremely high, journalists suspected in advance that the speech would be used to question the legitimacy of yet-to-be-counted votes, and the President, it seemed, would not be the president for much longer, rendering him somewhat less newsworthy and less powerful. And, last but not least, journalists were covering someone who—according to fact-checkers at the Washington Post—had made over 22,000 false or misleading claims since January 2017.

But this situation is not typical of much day-to-day political reporting. The circumstances are rarely as clear-cut or as heightened, journalists can be caught off guard by what politicians say, real time fact-checking is very difficult, and completely ignoring important politicians cannot always be justified.

Rather, when reporting on statements from politicians that could be false, journalists often face a difficult choice between some version of: (i) prominently reporting what they say because it is important for the public to know that they said it, or (ii) not emphasising what they say because it would give them unwarranted attention.

To understand how news audiences think about this dilemma we asked respondents in our 2020 Reuters Institute Digital News Report—an annual online survey across 40 different markets—which of the two options above comes closer to their view about what the news media should do when dealing with politicians that have made a statement that could be false?

In the U.S., half (50%) said “report the statement prominently because it is important for the public to know what the politician said” comes closer to their view (see Figure 1), with only 22% selecting “not emphasise the statement because it would give the politician unwarranted attention” (the remaining 28% said “Don’t know”). (Importantly, we might expect this preference for reporting to be even stronger if statements are reported as false—but as said, this is not always possible.)

Figure 1. What should the news media do
with statements from politicians that could be false?

These results were largely consistent across all of the 40 markets surveyed as part of the project, including countries like Germany, Spain and the UK, which have very different media systems to the U.S.. Furthermore, as I wrote in June, this general preference for reporting on potentially false claims “… appears to be consistent across a range of different socio-demographic groups like age, gender, and political leaning. Even in the U.S., where some might assume partisan differences due to different political styles, a majority of those on the left (58%) and right (53%) would prefer potentially false statements to be reported prominently – though perhaps for different reasons.”

Many journalists and commentators may disagree with this preference, and others might reject the idea that journalistic practice be dictated by the audience. Furthermore, this binary choice does not fully capture the nuances of the different journalistic approaches, and it is certainly possible that people think differently about the specific case involving Trump’s speech on November 5th. Also, the role of platforms should not be forgotten—as they face similar decisions about labelling and content moderation.

But the data from the Digital News Report reminds us that much of the public are generally uneasy about the news media taking the decision to keep information from them, even if the intentions are noble.

Many welcomed the decision to cut away from Trump’s speech, and given the circumstances, a strong case can be made that it was the right thing to do—just as a case can be made for showing the speech in full and then fact-checking it immediately afterwards.

But we should think carefully about whether this is a good precedent for political coverage more generally. We should ask whether it is something that journalists can realistically do in practice, but also whether it is something that audiences actually want them to do in the first place, and what they will ultimately think of news media who choose to do so—especially prominent politicians that millions of people, who are often already sceptical of the news media, have voted for.