Accuracy in Media

Those who know the American Constitution might think it a little strange that the president would sign off on the early release of a prisoner. A pardon, possibly, but the early release of a cartel’s boss’ daughter from a prison sentence? Yet this is what Vice would have us believe in this headline: “Trump Signed the Early Release of Cartel Boss El Mencho’s Daughter.”

“Jessica Oseguera is the daughter of CJNG cartel founder Nemesio Ruben Oseguera Cervantes, who has a $10 million bounty on his head,” according to the piece.

We can all just imagine the conspiracy theories that will generate. Except, of course, that’s not what happened at all:

“Jessica Oseguera, the daughter of one of the U.S.’ most-wanted drug lord fugitives, was released from prison a month early, thanks to an act signed by former President Donald Trump.”

Ah, well, yes, that could have happened. Those of us who do know our Constitution know that the president signs laws passed by Congress. If he doesn’t sign, or refuses to, this is known as “exercising his veto.” The president also doesn’t get to sign any laws that haven’t passed Congress – it’s in the definition there.

So, the law itself was the First Step Act. Specifically and exactly to reduce sentences for what were considered lower-level Federal offenses. As it happens no congressional Democrats voted against this, some 12 Republican senators did. We could call this bipartisan, therefore; we could call it Congress, or even Democrat. It’s not though, in any real or useful sense, “Trump” who is responsible for this early release.

So, why is the headline written this way? We have to assume a little, not having that window into men’s souls, but one of the truths of journalism is that an awful lot of people only read the headline. So, if it’s possible to pass an idea along – Trump Bad! – which then needs to be qualified a little further on then why not? If, you know, the idea is to just get that idea across rather than to actually inform.

Vice is a significant part of the modern media ecosystem. The cable channel reaches 60 million US households, the magazine has a 900,000 distribution, the website gets some 27 million visits a month. How Vice approaches a story influences that public square that is.

Anyone who has ever worked in any form of media or journalism knows what has been done with this story. Stick the grand claim into the headline and thereby convince those who don’t read on to see the walk-back. It’s known to be very effective and also something that shouldn’t be done – it’s akin to cheating.

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