As journalists grapple with how to accurately report on false or misleading statements without further spreading misinformation, the “truth sandwich” has been making its way onto the menu, so to speak, at some media outlets.
Berkeley linguist George Lakoff recently came up with the strategy that he decided to call the truth sandwich. Here’s how to build one: Lead with the truth. In the middle of the report, briefly describe the falsehood. And then fact-check the misinformation and repeat the truth.
“That’s the truth sandwich—reality, spin, reality—all in one tasty, democracy-nourishing meal,” Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, wrote of Lakoff’s suggested method for journalists.
(The name is actually a bit of a misnomer, as pointed out in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, since the truth isn’t sandwiched in the middle.)
Lakoff has said that he thinks media organizations are unintentionally spreading misinformation when they repeat lies or quote politicians who are asserting falsehoods.
“Avoid retelling the lies. Avoid putting them in headlines, leads or tweets,” Sullivan wrote of Lakoff’s advice. “Because it is that very amplification that gives them power.”
It’s an issue the PBS Editorial Standards caution against. “Accuracy includes more than simply verifying whether information is correct; facts must be placed in sufficient context based on the nature of the piece to ensure that the public is not misled,” the standards state. “Producers must also be mindful of the language used to frame the facts to avoid deceiving or misleading the audience or encouraging false inferences.”
An example of the practice of briefly describing a falsehood amid two truthful statements can be found in this August 2020 tweet from PBS NEWSHOUR White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor: “It’s been a few days since VP nominee Kamala Harris joined Joe Biden’s ticket & birtherism attacks have begun ... a Trump campaign advisor is openly questioning whether Harris is eligible to be on the ticket. Harris was born in the U.S. & is clearly eligible.”
Lakoff’s use of the term truth sandwich came about when discussing how journalists should cover the president, specifically when he tweets information that is known to be untrue.
But the truth sandwich is a technique that can also be used in covering a wide variety of topics, such as childhood vaccinations and climate change.
Elizabeth Jensen, NPR’s former public editor, wrote about the challenges of fairly covering different sides of the vaccination debate, in which some perspectives are not supported by science or proven evidence.
“Conscientious journalists try to avoid engaging in false equivalence and spreading misinformation while doing so,” she wrote.
How can reporters strike a balance between hearing different perspectives and opinions without unintentionally spreading misrepresentations?
Perhaps by serving up a truth sandwich.