Journalists Should Focus on What Voters Need to Know

During the first Republican debate last month, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy declared that “the climate change agenda is a hoax” and that American society is embroiled in a “cold, cultural civil war.” He called rivals on stage “super-PAC puppets,” launching attacks at them at any opportunity. Headlines ran about his “big night” and the “splash” he made, noting his ability to get words in on every issue, even if they weren’t accurate. Over the next 24 hours, Ramaswamy’s name topped 1 million Google searches, and coverage of him spiked 300%, according to a LexisNexis search.  

Journalists and pundits have long wrestled with the moral quandaries of reporting on politicians who distort the truth, or even lie and seek attention through inflammatory rhetoric. During former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency, the media was often scrutinized for publishing stories about his every tweet, ones that had little to do with policy and more to do with his incendiary words. On the one hand, these politicians are of interest to the American public — voters should know what these public figures believe and say. On the other, how should they be covered, and when is too much too much?

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Ahead of Wednesday’s second Republican debate, NBC News’ elections leaders discussed the enduring challenges of and best practices for covering candidates who spread misinformation and use the spotlight to provoke. 

Report on provocative rhetoric with context

Carrie Budoff Brown, senior vice president of politics at NBC News, said media organizations have “an obligation” to interview candidates who draw crowds and are ranked in national polls, no matter how combative or false their remarks may be. Failing to do so would create a “vacuum of information for voters,” she said.

“If a candidate says something provocative in front of millions of people, it’s incumbent upon us to pay attention and write about it and provide proper context,” Brown said. “As Chuck Todd used to say a lot, ‘We cover politics the way it is, not the way we want it to be.’”

The onus is on the news outlet to deliver that information in a responsible way, Brown said. Roughly three dozen reporters are assigned to election-related beats, she said; the network mobilizes a large segment of the group to cover debates on the ground and out of swing states.

During live debates, NBC’s political reporters, editors and researchers are in constant communication to infuse insight into candidates’ talking points and to fact-check in real time. When someone is flooding the debate with misinformation or extremist rhetoric, editors should correct such claims in the story and refrain from amplifying them in headlines, Brown said. 

Reporters can also conduct a more thorough fact check in follow-up stories. For example, the day after the first presidential debate of the 2020 election, NBC News senior reporter Jane Timm went through both candidates’ talking points, dissecting Biden’s false claim that crime rose under Trump and Trump’s false claims about fraud in mail-in voting and the state of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Stick to what audiences need to know

Mark Murray, NBC News senior political editor, said the effective way to write about controversial candidates is to simply relay their politics in a non-sensational way.

“Transparency still seems to be the best remedy,” Murray said. “It’s imperative for us to ask important questions like, ‘What would a second Trump term look like?’ What would a first Ramaswamy term look like?’”

There are ways in which the media can critically report on larger-than-life presidential hopefuls without emboldening their base, Murray said. The network’s strategy for covering debates, he said, is to highlight each candidate’s stance on crucial issues and establish “clashes of ideas” so that voters can more easily decide whom they want to support.

NBC also has an internal network of checks and balances to ensure its reporting is accurate, Murray said. The standards department, for example, scrutinizes reporting of controversial statements and “below-the-belt attacks” that candidates lob at each other during debates. Standards may also ask reporters for fact-checking that will result in a sidebar or separate story if more context is needed. During sit-down interviews, the department’s guidance is for interviewers to push back as much as possible when they hear a falsehood in real time.

Maintain control in interviews

For individual conversations with candidates, Murray emphasized the importance of steering the narrative. CNN’s town hall with Trump in May provided the former president a home-field advantage, he said. When CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins would fact-check or redirect the former president in real time, a raucous, pro-Trump crowd would often drown her out.

Murray said sometimes it’s better to do a taped interview as opposed to a live one to control outside factors. A taped environment allows the newsroom to implement additional safeguards as necessary, Brown said. During her recent “Meet the Press” sit-down with Trump, for example, moderator Kristen Welker would fact-check him in real time and then offer context about his allegations after interview segments.

“There’s a higher level of scrutiny when you take candidates who are known to lie more,” Brown said. “It’s the way we treat it in the four corners that we control: the headline, the body, the placement on our site, where we put it on TV.”

Be flexible, as races change

NBC doesn’t carve out a specific volume of airwaves or articles for a particular candidate, Murray said. But several factors can influence the type of coverage presidential hopefuls receive. 

One is if they do something newsworthy. Another is gauging voter interest at any given point in time. “Are their poll numbers going up or down? Are they doing a lot of events and seeing voters come to them?” Murray said.

It’s also worth noting that polls are not always a reliable snapshot of the American public, and journalists need to be transparent about sample size and margin of error.

“Candidates go up and down in the polls,” said Murray. “Voters change their preferences. The best thing we can do to cover a changing contest is to report on the race in front of us — while always having an eye on Primary Day and Election Day.” 

Claire Wang

Claire Wang is a journalist based in Orange County, California, who writes about politics, culture and Asian American issues. Her byline has appeared in NBC News, Vice, Atlas Obscura and elsewhere.