How to write about lies

Judith Donath has some sage advice about how to write and debunk falsehoods. She notes on the tendency for falsehoods to be believed if they are repeated often enough, something which short-circuits the more cautious and structured thinking of explicit rationalism. In attempting to debunk something, one must avoid this by first stating the truth, then stating the lie, then stating the truth again. Instead, most outlets put the lie in their headline, the lie at the start of the article, and a video (if spoken) repeating the lie a third time, long before the author gets around to fact checking.

But there is one big drawback to fact-checking and lie-correcting. The more often a lie is repeated, even in the context of debunking it, the more believable it becomes.Familiarity provides the impression of truth. Furthermore, false statements, even when we know they are false, influence our emotional response to people and events.

So, we need to be judicious in our zeal to correct.

One simple and effective, yet often overlooked, action is to be smarter about how we present corrections.

· State the truth in the headline (or tweet), rather than repeating the falsehood.

· Use vivid graphics that depict reality

· If the key point is that someone is lying — say that. Then state the truth. Don’t restate the lie in the headline.

This advice is not only for journalists, but for all of us who post stories on Twitter, Facebook etc. Multiple exposures to an “alternative fact” gives it credence. Remember to make the truth, not the falsehood, the most vivid take-away.

Let’s look at an example.

Read more here. I will certainly be following this advice.



  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    So it all boils down to which claim gets repeated more? :-p

    I wonder if that would still apply if we had a population schooled in better thinking.