Covering 2024: When Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Former President Donald Trump in West Palm Beach, Florida, on June 14, 2024. President Joe Biden in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on April 16, 20124. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

Covering presidential contests isn’t for the faint of heart. 

Candidates may reverse and contradict themselves on policy matters. They sometimes stretch, exaggerate and sometimes obliterate the truth. And they can engage in spin, controversy and shiny objects to varying degrees. 

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But there is a North Star for reporters and editors to help clarify all of the policy statements, the obvious (and sometimes not-so obvious) mistruths and all of the attacks and spin. 

Focus less on the candidates’ words and more on their actions.

The former allows them to say they’ve been mischaracterized or taken out of context; the latter is grounded in real proceedings and activity to judge the candidate’s record and behavior. 

Another way to think about this: What did the candidate do on a particular issue rather than say

Sorting through controversial statements, flip-flops and walk-backs

This North Star is handy for covering former President Donald Trump’s verbal avalanches, numerous false statements and controversial utterings and posts that can drive the news cycle — like “bloodbath,” “poisoning the blood” and “unified Reich.”

It’s also useful for covering President Joe Biden, who has engaged in his share of misstatements and verbal retreats.

A pair of Time magazine interviews of both Trump and Biden underscore the pitfalls of reporting solely on their words. And they remind us why their actions are always more clarifying. 

In his April interview with Time, Trump said he “might” support states monitoring women’s pregnancies; he said a federal abortion ban “won’t happen”; and he promised to take an official position on the abortion poll mifepristone in 14 days. 

But when you read the transcript of the interview, Trump didn’t say that states should be allowed to monitor women’s pregnancies, as Biden allies and some in the political media alleged. 

TIME: Do you think states should monitor women’s pregnancies so they can know if they’ve gotten an abortion after the ban?

TRUMP: I think they might do that. Again, you’ll have to speak to the individual states. Look, Roe v. Wade was all about bringing it back to the states… 

He did not announce support for a federal abortion ban. “I don’t have to do anything about vetoes, because we now have it back in the states,” he said in the interview. 

And, weeks after that interview, he still hasn’t made an official announcement of his policy on mifepristone.

So, what did Trump say on abortion in that Time interview? Answer: A lot of things — which don’t really explain where he stands on the issue. 

But what did he actually do when he was president? He appointed three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who all voted to overturn Roe v. Wade — after promising to appoint “pro-life” candidates during his 2016 race. 

“The justices that I am going to appoint will be pro-life. They will have a conservative bent,” he said in his final 2016 debate against Hillary Clinton. 

When he was specifically asked if he wanted the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, Trump added, “If we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that is really what will happen. That will happen automatically in my opinion. Because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.”

That action — appointing those justices — not only matches his words; it becomes a much more clarifying event to explain his record on abortion. 

Asking for clarity and offering context

Meanwhile, in Biden’s more recent interview with Time, the president seemed to suggest that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prolonging the war in Gaza for his political self-preservation. 

TIME: Some in Israel have suggested that Netanyahu is prolonging the war for his own political self-preservation. Do you believe that?

BIDEN: I’m not going to comment on that. There is every reason for people to draw that conclusion. And I would cite that as—before the war began, the blowback he was getting from the Israeli military for wanting to change the constitu—change the court.

Then Biden appeared to walk that back when NBC News’ Gabe Gutierrez pressed him on his comment to Time: 

GUTIERREZ: “Mr. President, is Prime Minister Netanyahu playing politics with the war?”

BIDEN: “I don’t think so, he’s trying to work out this serious problem he has.”

So how does a journalist make sense of those different words? First: “I’m not going to comment.” Then: “There is every reason for people to draw that conclusion.” Then after that: “I don’t think [he’s playing politics].” 

And how do you weigh them against Biden’s other comments on the Israel-Hamas war —  saying that he stood firmly behind Israel, then with more negative comments on Netanyahu after Israel’s monthslong offensive in Gaza, and then with Biden blaming Hamas for the failure to achieve a ceasefire? 

Answer: Look at Biden’s actions. Outside of halting a shipment of offensive weapons to Israel, the United States has continued to supply offensive and defensive weapons to the nation — after the U.S. drafted a ceasefire deal.

The actions have spoken louder than the words.  

None of this is to say that a president’s — or presidential candidate’s — words don’t matter. They do. They just require scrutiny and tough questions.

How to cover what a politician says

✅ Fact-check their statements, including stats and sweeping generalizations, like “crime is up.” 
✅ Offer context — Where is crime up, what type of crime and compared to when?
✅ Match their words against their actions — If they say they care about LGBTQ issues, does their record show it?
✅ If one politician points fingers at another politician or a company or entity, reach out for comment and fact-check the accusation. 
✅ Always back up anyone’s words with reporting.