When There's No Evidence To Support A Claim, We Should Say That : Memmos Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott writes occasional notes about the issues journalists encounter and the way NPR handles them. They often expand on topics covered in the Ethics Handbook.
NPR logo When There's No Evidence To Support A Claim, We Should Say That

When There's No Evidence To Support A Claim, We Should Say That

Politicians, public officials and — yes — members of the press will say things that don't check out.

– Brian Williams' helicopter was not shot down.

– Hillary Clinton did not have to run to her car because of sniper fire at an airport in Bosnia.

– Toronto Mayor Rob Ford ... pick your story.

When we can say some something definitive about such accounts, we should.

The latest case: Donald Trump's statement that he "watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down."

Regarding that account of what he says happened in New Jersey, we have told our audiences that:

– "Police say it didn't happen."

– "Local officials in New Jersey continue to dismiss Trump's claims."

– "New Jersey officials say it didn't happen."

Those lines add helpful context, but they also create a "he said, she said" situation. Trump says one thing, police and local officials say another. Have we done all we can to help listeners and Web users figure out who's right?

In situations such as this, we should first ask whether we should repeat the claim. After all, repeating it might give it more life. But if the answer to that question is yes, we should get to the point and say what we've found. Here's how The Two-Way has done it:

"We asked our library to look through contemporaneous news reports. They tell us that that they could not turn up any news accounts of American Muslims cheering or celebrating in the wake of Sept. 11."

Another way to say that might be: "NPR has searched for credible news accounts about large groups of American Muslims celebrating during or after the Sept. 11 attacks. No such accounts have been found."

We could also flatly report that "no evidence has been found in police or credible media accounts from the time to indicate there were large numbers of Muslim-Americans in New Jersey celebrating." We have used the "no evidence" framing on the air.

Regarding The Washington Post report from Sept. 18, 2001, that Trump has cited, it stated that "in Jersey City, within hours of two jetliners' plowing into the World Trade Center, law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river." But as we said on Morning Edition this week, "there is no reference in the [Washington Post] article to Trump's claim of seeing thousands and thousands Muslims celebrating in Jersey City."

FactCheck.org has noted that:

"The Post story said that Jersey City police detained 'a number of people' who were 'allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding a tailgate-style party' in Jersey City. That allegation was unattributed and unverified. Even if it did happen, and there is no evidence of it, the celebrating was not on TV and did not involve 'thousands and thousands of people.'