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The difference between skeptics and deniers

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

There are times when journalists select the boldest words possible, because it's the best way to convey the meaning and purpose of the story. Conversely, there are times when journalists reach for softer words.

Bold words evoke a clear image or definition. Softer words elicit a range of meanings or possibilities.

Journalists make these choices throughout the creative process of crafting a story. The words chosen for a first draft are often improved upon as writers and editors refine the work, steering it toward the meaning they want the reader or the listener to take away.

Today we address the question of how to describe the people who refuse to accept that Joe Biden was legitimately elected as the president of the United States. Are they skeptics or deniers? Does it matter?

We think it does. A skeptic is a person who doubts, often in the face of a majority or authority, but might be open to considering reasonable evidence. A denier is someone who objects to a conclusion, who is closed off to evidence and who might move the goalposts when their arguments are refuted.

The people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were certainly deniers of the 2020 presidential election outcome and not skeptics. And one could argue that, given the evidence brought forth by extensive examination and litigation related to that election, it's hard to believe that anyone remains in the camp of election skeptics.

To address this reader's critique, we asked about a headline that favored the softer word, "skeptics," over the more concrete descriptor, "deniers." Read on to see what we learned.

Also, we spotlight a weeklong piece of explanatory journalism on influencer culture by The Indicator from Planet Money podcast.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Separating election skeptics from deniers

Tom Marcinko wrote on April 26: Folks, I can't believe I have to say this, but: They are not "skeptics." They are DENIERS. They are people who are IN DENIAL. That goes double for climate. Please fix this, globally.

NPR has in the past described those who erroneously claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen as "deniers." In November 2022, All Things Considered did a story on deniers who were running for various political offices. And in January, ATC did a story about election deniers who hold elected offices. Both used "deniers" in the headline.

On Morning Edition last week, host Michel Martin interviewed political historian Nicole Hemmer about Tucker Carlson's exit from Fox News. In the interview, Martin described Carlson's habit of "pushing election lies" and "pushing views that had been considered the domain of a far-right fringe onto a mainstream conservative audience."

Morning Edition editor Jan Johnson wrote a brief article for that recapped the interview. The headline was: "Election skeptics may follow Tucker Carlson out of Fox News." Later, the article paraphrased Hemmer, "She tells Morning Edition that Carlson's exit may magnify a 'level of distrust' between Fox News and audience members who are skeptical of the network's call of the 2020 presidential election."

Hemmer herself did not use the word "skeptic" or "skeptical." But she also didn't use "denier." Instead, she was expansive in describing the distrust that developed among viewers on election night when Fox News called Arizona for Biden, and the role that Carlson played after that in drawing the "Trump base" back in.

We asked Morning Edition executive producer Erika Aguilar why "skeptics" appeared in this particular headline.

"We felt that the broader term was the most appropriate," she wrote in an email. "There are levels of skepticism. For example, some may have doubts, but accept the results in the end."

Aguilar said the goal was to reflect "the interview guest's point of view that 'there's a level of distrust between parts of the Fox audience and Fox News' that came after the network's call of the 2020 elections."

The Associated Press Stylebook offers a hint of guidance on the terms. When it comes to climate change, the AP suggests avoiding both "climate change skeptic" and "climate change denier" in favor of being more specific about people's beliefs with a description like "people who do not agree with mainstream science that says the climate is changing."

Hemmer was doing just that in the language she used to describe Fox News and a portion of its audience. In addition to the distrust among the audience, she described the draw of Carlson's rhetoric to Fox's audience and the network's decline in credibility among journalists.

As a broadcast interview, the exchange between Martin and Hemmer was both accurate and enlightening. The written recap of the interview for the NPR website was effective as well, offering highlights of Hemmer's insights.

But the headline didn't work. That's because it didn't tell readers what the story was about.

The headline could have announced that the story was one expert's analysis and relied more faithfully on Hemmer's specific language, like "Carlson's audience," "Trump base" or "parts of the Fox audience" to describe the people in question.

That way the headline could have avoided the choice of "skeptic" or "denier," since the expert at the center of the story used neither word. — Kelly McBride and Amaris Castillo


The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

A series on influencers

The Indicator from Planet Money did an explanatory dive into the multibillion-dollar social media influencer industry. With voices from content creators and experts, the five-part series covered the industry's origins and economics, and looked into how influencer became a career path for some Gen Zers. The series explored many aspects of this young industry: the brutal reality that many influencers don't make a living from their content creation, how the line between professional and personal is blurred for them, and the ethical implications of children becoming influencers. Each part of the series gives listeners a fuller picture of the influencer world. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

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