Jan 1 2007

From Official Claims to Media Reality

Editor's Note

The Washington Post website early on December 9 featured three headlines that committed the same journalistic error: They treated as fact things that were revealed in the articles that they linked to as disputed claims. In each case, the effect was to treat assertions made by U.S. government officials as undisputed reality.

One headline was “Officials Not Liable for Detainee Torture.” When you clicked on it, you found the more accurate headline “U.S. Denies Liability in Torture Case: Attorney Urges Dismissal of Detainee Suit Against Officials.” In other words, officials said they don’t want to be liable for detainee torture. The judge hearing the case had yet to decide whether officials could in fact be held liable.

Another home-page headline was “No Laws Broken in Page Case” (with a blurb reading, “Committee report speculates then-Rep. Foley’s behavior was ignored for political expedience”). The headline over the actual story was the quite different “Committee Says GOP Left Foley Unchecked: Ethics Panel Faults Many, Punishes None.” The article didn’t actually say anything about whether or not laws were broken, instead quoting the ethics committee as saying that it hadn’t established that any House rules were broken.

The third headline was “U.S.-Led Forces Kill 20 Insurgents in Iraq”; this was also the headline over the actual article. The lead of the article, however, did not present the supposed insurgent deaths as fact; it said that “the U.S. military said” that coalition forces had “killed 20 suspected insurgents.” What’s more, the third paragraph, citing the leader of the town where the deaths took place, made clear that this claim is disputed:

Amir Alwan, mayor of Ishaqi, disputed the military’s account, saying that 10 men, 4 women and 10 children in his village were killed. News agencies published what they said were photos of dead children at the site. The military denied that civilians and children were killed.

The headline writers, however, apparently somehow knew that the mayor was lying and the U.S. military was telling the truth. That seems to be the default assumption at the Post these days when it comes to official claims.