During Donald Trump’s recent European visit a news item briefly flared in which the Polish president’s wife, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, was presented as having snubbed the US president. She ignored his outstretched hand and instead shook the hand of Trump’s wife, Melania.
Or so the footage, circulated by several major media outlets including the Guardian, seemed to show. It was enhanced by at least one closeup of Trump looking piqued, and it garnered a big audience. On social media, some celebrated Trump’s apparent discomfort. Kornhauser-Duda was hailed for landing a subtle blow for women.
But the item was wrong. By suggesting a deliberate snub it misled.
More complete footage of the incident showed Kornhauser-Duda unable to greet Melania when the Polish couple joined the Trumps on stage because the two women were positioned to the extreme left and right of the husbands standing side by side between them. Having already shaken Trump’s hand once, when the music stopped and applause began Kornhauser-Duda walked in front of both husbands towards Melania, looking at her and stretching out a hand. Kornhauser-Duda did not appear to see Trump’s hand, which he was offering as she passed after Trump had shaken hands with Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda. As soon as she had shaken Melania’s hand, Kornhauser-Duda turned and without hesitation accepted Trump’s.
When a reader drew attention to the way the edited version distorted what had taken place, I raised the issue with the relevant Guardian editors, and they immediately accepted the need to correct. Staff who put together the item for the Guardian told me they based it on wire service material from a regular and reputable source. In that material the incident was already framed as an apparent snub. It did seem to fit into the growing catalogue of Trump’s odd greetings.
I am satisfied that the Guardian did not set out to mislead, but that was the initial effect. Several other major media organisations made the same mistake and some also corrected it, as the fact-checking organisation Snopes has reported.
The episode, in itself minor, is nevertheless a reminder of two major points that contemporary journalism cannot afford to neglect. The first is the ease with which the label “fake news” can be applied with a superficial persuasiveness to flawed journalism. President Duda defended his wife on Twitter and exhorted followers to fight fake news.
Second is the connection between trust and willingness to admit and correct significant error. Not new, of course, but in this period of serious challenge to the legitimacy of institutional journalism it is worth restating. Readers know, from their own life experience, that all institutions are fallible. Institutions that pretend to infallibility merit wariness. Admission of imperfection, not denial of it, earns trust.
Early this year, the Trusting News project, by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, carried out an online survey of 8,728 Americans, who ranked four UK-based media organisations among the 10 most trusted news sources in the United States: the Economist came first, Reuters third, the BBC fourth and the Guardian seventh.
The methodology explains limitations, so caution is required with the results. The trust ranking is based on the proportion of “trusted” versus “not trusted” responses given about 39 news sources that were mentioned at least 10 times. The report does not tackle the puzzle: why do a sample of Americans, invited into the survey via 28 US newsrooms, rate British news sources so highly? One commentator wondered if it is the accent.
Asked what made a news source credible to them, respondents frequently mentioned: presenting information on both sides of an issue or argument; using multiple sources; and fact-checking.
Trust is hard-won, easily lost. In the continuous effort to maintain credibility – as well as commercial viability – institutional journalism needs to be vigilant to avoid cases like the snub that wasn’t. When they happen they need to be corrected frankly and quickly.