Can journalists call a lie, a lie?

For me, one of the strongest messages that got tweeted out from Newsfoo, a recent invitation-only meeting of the journo+tech minds, was one by Andrew Golis, who said a major theme was “not just to report truth, but attack untruth.”

That goes to a question I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: Has a journalist now, or ever, had the ability… the option… the support… or even time… to call a lie, a lie?

Clearly I am oversimplifying complex scenarios we report, but in certain cases when the opportunity arises, do we have the courage to, you know, call bullsh*t on something?

We’ve all hear the interviews where we, as the audience, can tell the “expert” is just adding spin. But it feels like it’s only in rare cases where we hear the reporter push back. The notion of truthsquading is very much a part of our journalistic DNA, but lately I’ve been feeling that we haven’t been doing this.

So these are the questions bouncing around in my head: Is it a rarity? Was it always a rarity? What happens if you do or don’t call someone out? And, if it is a rarity, why? What keeps us from doing one of the most important responsibilities in our job?


NOTE: I’m not purposing to answer these questions with this post. I’m trying to figure it out as I write this. In fact, I am hoping you can help me by sharing your thoughts and first-hand experiences, as a reporter. Give me context by responding to these questions:

1- Do you think it is a rarity that a reporter calls a lie, a lie?

2- Outside from being rude, in today’s journalistic landscape, do you think a reporter could call out an expert or source? Why or why not?

3- Should reporters do this more often? Are they already doing it enough?

4- Have you ever been put in that position? What did you do and why?

Here are my answers:

1- I don’t think reporters are calling a lie, a lie enough. I feel like the rise of Wikileaks, the popularity of the Daily Show and the reliance of PolitiFact are primarily because we don’t do this enough. These diverse examples make the effort, or attempt, to do it in their own way and we rightfully value them for it.

2- I do feel like it seems tougher to do so… and there are a lot of factors in play here, in my opinion. From job instability to fear of losing access, a reporter is under a lot of pressure to produce a “fair” piece under deadline.

Traditionally we’ve been trained that in order to be fair or be seen as objective, we should include both sides. But I feel like people have figured out the game and are giving reporters the run around. We know reporters are smart and probably know they are getting the run around. We see this in politics, for example.

But we have to feed the beast. We’re doing more with less. And, if you can’t do it, there are countless aspiring journalists who will.

3- To me, like that tweet said, it is more important than ever to truthsquad for our communities. There is so much spin and hype out there and we are the only ones whose specific job is in the constitution to fight for an informed democracy.

But I don’t put it all on reporters… I look at their editors and their bosses. Those that are worried more about the bottom-line financially rather than the bottom-line journalistically.

Here’s a dramatic question I am hesitate to make: It took a year between the Watergate break-ins and the first set of related resignations, two years until Nixon resigned. Do you think your editors would give you the time today to look deeper into a break-in at a hotel?

There are some who are fortunate to have those editors who will say yes. There are far too many who would have to admit no.

4- Um, I have to admit that I am the socially awkward guy that has bruised relationships of all kinds by pushing back. I try to do so respectfully, mind you, but from asking if someone is evil to giving honest, direct feedback … well, I can’t help it. I’m damn lucky I found journalism is my profession.

I feel like I have to be honest with myself, with the people I’m interacting with (from sources to friends) and, most importantly, my community I am reporting for. And, I expect people to do the same to me… granted it’s painful and awkward.


Again, I know it’s rarely so black-and-white. But this question, this concept has been weighing heavily on my mind.

What is our responsibility when we are in the middle of people blurring the line between fact and belief. What should we be expect expected to do? Realistically.

Please help me explore this by answering the questions and sharing your comments. Hell, call B.S. if you think this premise is off too.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

About Robert Hernandez

Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, is an assistant professor at USC Annenberg. Hernandez has been working in Web journalism for more than a decade. He has worked for,,, La Prensa Gr


  1. Robert,

    You ask some good questions.

    I can answer only for myself, but in my experience, there are only two ways to ethically deal with sources who lie:
    1) Include the lie in your reporting, closely followed by the factual information showing why it’s a lie.
    2) Leave it out.

    Unfortunately, as you point out, there are many within and without the profession who believe “objectivity” or “fairness” means that each side gets equal time or column inches, regardless of the validity of what they’re saying.
    A large number of journalists seem to have been schooled in the belief that there is no such thing as the truth and that all views are created equal. While this might be a valid topic for debate in a college philosophy class, it’s disastrous for real-world journalism.

    I once heard Dan Rather make a comparison between reporting the fact and reporting the truth about the fact.
    The example he used of reporting the fact was that it was factual to report that Sen. Joseph McCarthy said someone was a communist.
    Reporting the truth about the fact meant going further to determine whether the person said to be a communist actually was one.
    That has stuck with me for many years.

    I know I personally am sick to death of stories where years, sometimes decades, of careful expert research is “balanced” by some spokesperson who is paid to present a self-serving “other side.”
    Everything becomes a he-said/she-said. Nothing is ever learned. Nothing is ever proved.

    Frankly, I think this sort of schizophrenic approach to storytelling is one of the big reasons behind the decline of mainstream journalism. It’s possibly a bigger reason than dwindling newsroom resources, although I think the two are interlinked.

    We need to ask ourselves why a reader should spend money and time with us, only to be left wondering at the end of the day whether the earth is round or flat, because a journalist didn’t do his or her job and find out which “side” is right.

    Maybe I’m hopelessly pre-postmodern, but I didn’t get into this business to be a stenographer for competing spin machines.

  2. says:

    If journalists don’t, who will? Can we continue providing the first draft of history and leaving it up to readers/experts/others to sort it all out? The real-world reality of balancing truth-telling with access may be important, but it, too, is being masterfully spun.

  3. Robert McClure says:

    Robert, great column. Journalists have to call out liars. It’s perhaps the most basic thing we do: cut through the crap and tell the people what’s really happening. No, reduced resources are not an excuse. Let’s stop “feeding the beast” so much and produce more nutritious if less frequent meals, OK? No, journalists don’t call out lies as much as we should and yes, we absolutely need to do it more.

  4. says:

    If you do your job as a reporter and give the facts, the reader or listener can decide whether something is a lie. Calling something a lie is making a personal judgement, and doing what all biased journalists do, which is assume their audience is too stupid to reach the right conclusion from the information being given.

  5. says:

    Good points, Robert..

    Jeff Goodell talks about this in relation to environmental or science reporters. How much should reporters quote “the other side”? What about global warming? What responsibility does the reporter to include, counter or leave out opinions masquerading as facts?

    (… Robin J Phillips)

  6. says:

    I have a problem with the word “lie.” Just because someone says something that is false does not mean they’re lying. Lying is saying something that they know to be untrue.

    Journalists can discriminate between something that is true and something that is not, but can’t discern the mindset of the person who uttered it.

    To do so is making a judgment call, as an earlier commenter noted.

    Except in pretty rare circumstances, it is impossible to verify if someone knew they were telling an untruth — and even then usually well after the fact. President Clinton’s assertion that “I did not have relations with that woman” was a lie, but we didn’t know that for months.

  7. says:

    The problem is not calling a lie a lie. It is the fact that we omit information that does not provide a clear picture for the reader. Its a form of censorship and it’s been going on in this country for a long time but I think it has grown far worse in the past decade with media consolidation, greater control of communications power in fewer hands and corporate ownership of media.

  8. says:

    Occasionally a publication highlights the lie. But most have neither the stomach or resources to battle a prolonged legal storm should one result.A more realistic approach: Run a folo story will comments from qualified experts or cite other official documentation that debunks the lie. Just be sure to note any biases fromthese sources that could keep the lie alive. Trust readers to make their own assessments via phone calls or e-mails to the reporter and the publications opinion page editor.

  9. says:

    Don’t call – show.
    Present the lying weasel’s words and then provide the reader with ample evidence that the subject is a liar. Fair and balanced? Of course not

  10. says:

    This rhetorical question is so 2006. Anyway, journalists can call anything whatever they want, assuming they own the publication or have the boss’s backing. Columnists do it all the time, of course. But if journalists want people to listen to them as bringers of fact rather than opinion, they won’t presume the ability to read minds, which a charge of lying sometimes entails. Secondly, they won’t characterize entire systems of thought as lies (which I think is the point of most people on the fringes who complain about lies,) or every factual argument they disagree with as a lie, or opinions as lies. Let us remember, the American public considers us, the journalists, as liars on par with the biggest of them. We lied in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, we lied about the tea party, we lied about this, we lied about that, leftwing, rightwing, blah blah blah. Us tarring people as liars, rather than dispassionately laying out the facts as best we can muster them, weakens the power of the independent press.

  11. says:

    To the commenters who seem to think that a journalist’s job is to barf up the news onto a newspaper or TV station or website:

    I’m sorry, but journalists know good and damn well when someone is lying. We know when we’ve seen a politician say one thing in a committee meeting and say the opposite in public. We know when we saw a memo or an email that clearly contradicts something the person is saying to us.

    Just like YOU know when someone is lying sometimes, so do we.

    So yes, journalists absolutely can call a lie a lie, and they can call out people who are speaking untruths – even if it’s not a lie – by saying that they are passing along untrue information without bothering to see if it’s accurate.

    Exhibit A: The headless people in the Arizona desert

    Exhibit B: The $200-million-a-day BS story about Obama’s trip that kept getting repeated by right wingers.

    Were either of those lies? I’d say the gov repeating the headless stuff even AFTER the border patrol said it was wrong? Lie.

    This is not rocket science. Like it or not, journalists think for themselves and have the judgment – and the responsibility – to call out a lie when they see it.

  12. says:

    Not only call a lie a lie, but back it up with the facts that prove it.

  13. says:

    Why the comma in the headline? If I asked, “Can journalists call a pig a cow,” I wouldn’t use a comma, so why use one here?

  14. says:

    Great topic. One question left out though. Can a journalist recognize a lie as a lie. Most journalists are so bound to their own bias that cant see a lie as a lie. From the Uber liberal NYT to the ultra conservative whipping boy of the MSM Fox news. Make no mistake having lies on the left of me and Fibs to the right does not give me the real news. Its time to call opinion providers just that and not journalists. And keep them seperate from the real news. As well as point out the lack of facts in their columns and tv appearances