Daniel Dale on journalistic truth in the Trump era

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on March 24, 2019

Daniel Dale from The Toronto Star delivered the Dalton Camp lecture at St. Thomas University on March 21. Photo by Sophie Lavoie.

According to a seasoned journalist, reporters need to be interrupting the transmission of false claims and lies to peel people away from propaganda.

The Dalton Camp Lecture in Journalism on March 21 at St. Thomas University (STU) featured reporter Daniel Dale from The Toronto Star. According to STU Journalism professor Jan Wong, who introduced him, Dale has “weaponized Twitter” in his denunciation of Trump’s false truths.

Dale made his reputation at The Star covering Rob Ford when Ford was mayor of Toronto from 2010 to 2014.  Although not used often in journalism, Dale’s first used the word “lie” to call out Rob Ford’s denouncing him as a pedophile for investigating public land that Ford wanted to buy, adjacent to Ford’s house.

This caused #fencegate, named for Rob Ford’s narrative about the incident. Dale denied he had been peering over Ford’s fence and subsequently received a full retraction from Ford.

More recently, as The Star’s Washington correspondent, Dale was famously blocked on Twitter by US President Donald Trump and, despite a court finding that this was unconstitutional, has not been unblocked.

Washington correspondent for a Canadian newspaper is not exactly the most exciting position, according to Dale, but that quickly changed.

Dale covered the Trump campaign from Day 1, at Trump Tower, where Trump gave “the worst political speech [Dale] ever heard” but it pushed Trump to the front of the presidential race. When he met Trump supporters, Dale remarked “I know these people, these are Rob Ford’s supporters.”

Once he started covering Trump in earnest, Dale commented that “much of what he was hearing was not true” as if communications had “been taken over by conspiracy theorists.” Dale “grew increasingly distressed” by how much dishonesty was happening, and especially with “the frequency of lying.”

Mainstream media outlets were not covering these lies and were not fact-checking Trump’s statements. One day in 2016, Dale made a list of the false things Trump had said that day and published it on Twitter. The documentary filmmaker Michael Moore retweeted Dale’s work, which garnered him an extra 11,000 followers. This transformed Dale into a journalistic star who currently has 551,000 Twitter followers.

For Dale, Trump’s tweets are “the most unfiltered expression of his thoughts.” Dale asked himself if Trump was “intentionally distracting” people from more important things going on but concluded that Trump is “simply distracted himself.” He also recognized Trump’s power to disturb simply by tweeting: “it’s amazing how distracted [Trump] can make us.”

Beyond distraction, for Dale, “a lot of these lies are dangerous.”  The worst lies, for Dale, are those that “undermine faith in democracy” such as Tweets about people voting illegally in California, for example.

The other serious falsehoods are those that “promote negative sentiment towards religious or racial groups.” For Dale, Trump “fomented anti-Muslim bigotry” and was clearly Islamophobic during his presidential campaign. And, regardless of the type of lie, “all of them matter.”

Polls around Trump’s lies show that only about 30% of people believe the president, according to Dale. He went to Trump-held counties to ask Trump supporters if they thought the US President was lying. Surprisingly, some applauded Trump’s desire to “mess with [journalists’] brains.”

People who believe Trump, “when pressed on their media habits” are watching media like Fox News and listening to Rush Limbaugh. Thus, for Dale, “peeling them away from propaganda” will take tremendous effort.

All the fact-checking is done on Dale’s own time. Trump has “dramatically escalated” his number of falsehoods as of late and is repetitively lying.

For Dale, the work of debunking Trump is not that difficult, it’s just time-consuming.  Now that this work has become a phenomenon, Dale says “it’s depressing (…) I feel I can’t quit.” However, he recognizes that “it’s much better for everyone if you can prevent the transmission of the lies.”

Dale’s statistical analysis has found that recently Trump’s been saying an average of six lies per day, a number that has steadily increased as Trump has become more comfortable in his role of President.

Do facts matter? Dale is often asked why he bothers to do what he does. For Dale, journalists must “provide people accurate information and hold powerful people to account.” Getting factual information to even a small percentage of the people can change things when elections are won with such small margins.

Dale discussed the similarities between the Ford and Trump: “both of them understood that going after the media could be a good strategy.” What Dale learned from covering both these men has been “how journalists should approach the issue of truth.” He has endorsed and tried to embody “a truth-centric model of journalism” as a reporter. 

According to Dale, journalists need to be “interrupting the transmission” of false claims and lies. Headlines should not quote “untrue things” because they are “amplifying dishonesty”. In some cases, he has found that with Trump, “the people he’s lying about don’t want to make him mad.”

False claims need to be challenged and repetition does not make a lie a truth. Journalists must “challenge our leaders about their lies.” Additionally, reporters “must come armed with facts” to challenge politicians and shouldn’t assume that the public is knowledgeable about certain issues.

Finally, for Dale, “interrupting the transmission means using the word ‘lie’” because “we’re in the accuracy business.”

This is also a response to “the broad crisis of trust in media” that Dale saw when half of The Star’s subscriber base did not believe reports of Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine despite the journalists having seen the video.

For Dale, “there are complicated issues in the media today including ad revenues, declining readership, fewer reporters, (…) but also eroding trust.” For that reason, journalists need to be “be straight-shooters” with their readers. According to Dale, “that’s not bias, that’s objectivity.”

Dale said, “our job is to inform the electorate.” There is much left to do for reporters since the market is shrinking, and most mayoral councils and provincial legislatures are barely covered. Dale also mentioned how much his own newspaper has reduced its outside coverage since he is the last remaining bureau for The Star. For Dale, “we need creative solutions for independent media.”

Dale says that journalists also need to “own up” to their mistakes and be transparent about them. This will help people understand. He applauds colleagues who “show people how the sausage is made” to prove that journalists are “good faith human beings trying to get them truth.” It is also good to show personality. Dale tweets about the Raptors to show he’s “not a fact-checking robot. If you can humanize yourself, it helps.”

When asked about the use of social media by journalists, Dale said that “social media makes it easy to depart from the tone that journalists should use.” For him, budding journalists need to keep in mind that “Twitter is unrepresentative of a wider world”; only about 11% of US citizens are on this platform. According to Twitter, almost 50% of Canada’s online population use the platform.

Sophie M. Lavoie, a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board, publishes on arts and culture.

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