Jack Devlin

Students, faculty and New Haven residents gathered on Monday to hear Isaac Stanley-Becker ’16 speak about the challenges of political reporting and disinformation.

Stanley-Becker — a current national political reporter for the Washington Post — visited campus for two events, both sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism. He was first a guest at a Jonathan Edwards College Tea, in which he spoke about his personal experiences reporting on politics in the era of fake news. In the evening, he discussed covering presidential campaigns via a conversation with Kendrick McDonald ’16 in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, which was cohosted by The Politic.

“The slogan of the [Post] itself is ‘Democracy dies in darkness,’” said professor James Sleeper in his introduction to Monday night’s event. “I guess the point we’re making is [that] democracy can also die in a bright glare, in the deluge of people shouting over each other so that nobody is listening.”

Stanley-Becker worked as a reporter on the City Desk before serving as editor in chief of the News as a junior. He graduated from Yale in 2016 summa cum laude and was a Phi Beta Kappa inductee. He went on to study at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and earn both a master’s and a Doctor of Philosophy in history. Before joining the Post, he worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Wall Street Journal. He has been reporting for the Post since 2017, covering stories in Germany and other European countries, and recently moved to the national politics team.

At Monday night’s event, Stanley-Becker was in conversation with former classmate McDonald, who worked as the editor in chief of The New Journal and a features editor for the Yale Herald during his time as a student. McDonald now works as a senior analyst and deputy editor at NewsGuard, an organization that rates the reliability of various news sources.

McDonald opened the talk, offering his thoughts on the title of the event. According to McDonald, “censorship through noise” — referring back to the overwhelming volume of modern media content and commentary that Sleeper described as a deluge— was another form of disinformation.

He distinguished between disinformation and misinformation and asked Stanley-Becker about the conversations that journalists at the Post have had about where to draw the line between accidental errors and intentional misinformation.

Stanley-Becker replied that it is important to separate the intent of the spreader and the impact on the public. As an example, he cited a recent Fox News interview with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-AR, during which the senator promoted a previously-debunked theory about the origins of the coronavirus.

“We often think that [disinformation] is purveyed by people who don’t have access to good sources of information and they’re just spitballing, but clearly that’s not the case for a U.S. senator,” Stanley-Becker said. “So you start to wonder what his intent is, or whether this is more insidious, or just half-baked.”

The pair discussed other avenues for spreading disinformation, like increasingly realistic deepfake videos and the far-right theory QAnon. They also talked about the ethical dilemma during the impeachment inquiry over whether to publish the whistleblower’s name, which the Post ultimately decided not to publish.

Audience members from the New Haven community mainly focused their questions to Stanley-Becker on the Post — ranging from Jeff Bezos’ influence over editorial content to moments of perceived bias in political articles.

“I thought it was interesting how [Stanley-Becker] mentioned the importance of respecting journalistic sources, not only when including their names in a piece,” Anastasia Hufham ’22 said. “He found that he had much more engaging interviews when he asked sources why they believed what they believe, instead of just taking their opinions at face value.”

Linsly-Chittenden Hall is located at 63 High St.

Olivia Tucker | olivia.tucker@yale.edu