(The Knife Media) There are certain biases embedded in the news coverage of this week’s Supreme Court decision to hear the union dues case, which may distort how readers understand the issue. For example, coverage suggests that the court will rule against the unions and in favor of Janus, though the court hasn’t heard the case yet. Media also imports moral judgments on the case: one outlet implies ruling against the unions would be good and correct a past mistake, whereas three imply that ruling against the unions would be harmful to workers and a bad decision.
(The Knife Media) Sensational, imprecise or subjective terms add more to the news than an entertainment factor — they obscure the information, making it harder to figure out what happened and what the effects of that could be. We found all these forms of spin in the coverage of the Kurdish referendum, which is an already complex situation.
Here’s a quick illustration of what happens when spin is brought into journalism. Examine the following information, which is in the style of our Daily Cut news summaries.
(The Knife Media) The news is meant to inform us about what’s going on in the world, and sometimes it does that well. But other times it gives us opinion about what’s going on, which can actually obscure the facts. Opinion is usually based on facts, so there’s usually some data underneath the opinion and dramatic language. We as readers sometimes need to dig through, read between the lines or make assumptions about what something might mean in order to get down to the actual data of what’s happening.
(The Knife Media) The FBI’s report provided a lot of data with a lot of distinctions, including which types of crimes rose and which subsided, and where. But depending on the outlet you read, you’ll get a very different impression of the data because of how it was slanted.
In this analysis, we found that two pairings of outlets slanted their coverage in ways that created two distinct points of view. Both sets cherry-picked their information, so you won’t find certain data in one set that you will in another. The differences in slant are striking, considering all four outlets used the same FBI report.
(The Knife Media) When we analyzed the media coverage of Trump and the NFL over the weekend, we noticed a number of quotes that had questionable reasoning. When outlets quote leaders and other sources, and those quotes have flawed logic, it can influence how readers interpret the facts.
For this analysis, we selected four separate stories—some recent, some older—and analyzed the logic of statements made by leaders and companies ranging from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, from Roger Goodell to Uber. (To read background on each news event, see the Raw Data section below). Here they are:
(The Knife Media) Professional sports aren’t perfect, but they represent some of humanity’s best qualities: team building, perseverance, loyalty and, above all, good sportsmanship. So when the dishonor that’s been increasingly common in U.S. politics reached this area, the impact may have been more noticeable.
(The Knife Media) The recent news from Myanmar has been tragic. More than 1,000 people have reportedly died and over 420,000 people, 240,000 of them estimated to be children, have left their homes in Rakhine state since late August. This did not happen in a vacuum; the events of the past decades, even centuries, have brought Myanmar to this point. Yet many media reports don’t provide background information to help people understand what is happening now. We provide that context here.
(The Knife Media) In media, spin or dramatic language often does more than sensationalize the news — it promotes bias. In the coverage of California’s lawsuit against President Trump over the proposed border wall, we found Fox News used martial or war-like language in its report. This can deliver the news in a more emotionally charged way, and it can also suggest California’s lawsuits are part of a greater vendetta against Trump and the White House. Consider the following examples.
(The Knife Media) Trump said some potentially unconventional things in his U.N. speech, and many media outlets pointed this out. His statements were different from what past U.S. leaders have said there, and from some recent remarks by his cabinet members. He spoke, for instance, of crushing “loser terrorists,” and said the U.S. could “totally destroy North Korea” under certain circumstances. He also made statements that could be seen as contradictory.
It’s not a problem that the media points these things out – indeed it can help us understand the president’s remarks in a greater context. It’s how it reports them. Instead of just reporting the facts, outlets added their own opinions—for instance, that he was “saber-rattling,” “unabashed” or “characteristically confrontational.” If outlets editorialize as they report, people may take the opinion as fact. This deviates from data-based journalism and can discourage critical evaluation. Take a look at the following examples:
(The Knife Media) There’s a reason emergency notices are written precisely, succinctly and featuring only the most vital information. They’re intended to guide people through emergency situations, from administering life-saving aid to evacuating entire territories. Can you imagine what would happen if those notices were written in a sensational way?
We saw something similar with the news about Hurricane Maria, as some media outlets used dramatic and imprecise terms to describe the forecast. We thought a comparison between the most and least spun information sources (The Washington Post and NOAA, respectively) might bring the point home.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is editor-in-chief and co-developer of The Knife Media, a digital publication that presents news without bias and rates media outlets on their level of objectivity.