Deciding who to believe in the age of “alternative facts”

On January 24, 2017, Michael A. Memoli published to the Los Angeles Times website “Trump’s unproven claims of widespread voter fraud trip up White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.” The article is on the Trump’s administration’s claims on voter fraud.

The article focuses on Sean Spicer and his inability to defend the administration’s belief that millions of illegal votes are being made in US elections.

Like many articles published about the Trump administration, it is important for journalists, scholars, and the public to decide if information is reliable.

The SMELL test is a tool that can help people ascertain information about a piece of news so that they can make that decision.

The SMELL test is an acronym for: Sources, Motivation, Evidence, Logic and What’s Left Out. This blog post will examine the dynamics of the SMELL test in regards to Memoli’s article.

This test is important, especially when dealing with a new presidential administration that sometimes claims alternative facts as their defense.

To begin with, I researched Memoli’s reporting background. Per the Los Angeles Times, he has been reporting for the past 11 years in Washington D.C. on politics. After a quick Google search, I found his work on the Chicago Tribune website and the San Diego Union Tribune.

The sources in the article are Sean Spicer, Donald Trump, and unnamed reporters. It is unclear whether Memoli spoke with his sources directly. He also does not state whether he attended the press conference that Spicer spoke at. However, it can be assumed that he was not present due to missing information about locations and critical reporter names.

It is obvious that his motivation is to educated the public about the political news; he has been doing so for over a decade.

In the article, Memoli’s main flaw is his use of innuendo. He frequently uses phrases like “appeared to be,” “mostly,” and “apparently.” Even though innuendo is a common failure as discussed in our lecture, I noticed that he uses these words whenever he is discussing something that Trump said.

I respect him using these words in this context because much of what President Trump discussed during his campaign was ambiguous. He has changed his point of view on many of times and has given false information to the public. Using these terms expresses his uncertainty as a reporter with claims that are unverifiable by Trump.

Even though much of the content points to Memoli being a reliable source, I would like to discuss what is left out of the article. One argument that Memoli implies is that Spicer left his press conference because he was unable to assert the question about illegal votes. However, Memoli did not do any investigation into the real reason Spicer was prompted to leave the podium.

Memoli also does not support or dispute the fact that voter fraud exists. Adding context to how many voters are actually voting illegal could help the reader conclude where the Trump administration might be getting their facts about voter fraud.

Memoli ends the article with a quote from Alex Padilla about the dangers of alternative facts. I think using this many sources confused the article. He did not add enough outside information to support or dispute the claims that his sources were making. It is possible that even he had trouble finding the truth when it came to the voter fraud or that he assumed that all his readers already made up their mind about what they believed was true.

In the end, I think that journalists need to focus on the real issues and real truths. Spending too much time on whether someone is telling the truth or not can surely delay us from discussing real facts and solutions to real problems.


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