Since the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, much of the coverage of sexual misconduct has been highly sensationalized and involved allegations that haven’t followed due process or gone through the proper legal channels. In those cases, the sensationalism is more problematic because it riles society up, biasing it against the individuals accused often before an investigation has even begun. It corrodes our regard for the presumption of innocence, which is one of the founding principles of the U.S. justice system.
We’ve all experienced news that’s clearly sensationalized. It’s easy to cut through all the unnecessary drama, right? Not always. Sometimes language can incite hype without it being so evident. This was the case in the coverage of Sessions and the Mueller investigation. Most outlets covered the news in a seemingly objective and data-based manner. But upon further review, The Knife’s analysts found subtle ways the outlets distorted the news that may affect how readers perceive the story.
State-run news outlets are known for strong bias that portrays their governments favorably, and opponents negatively. That’s not a surprise given that these agencies are part of the government. Yet many times, while their articles feel biased, the slant isn’t that easy to spot — unless you know where to look for it. The writing itself tends to be more data-based than that of traditional, corporate-owned media outlets in the U.S. and other countries, which use more sensational language and blur the line between fact and opinion. Instead, state-owned media coverage often omits key data that, if included, would provide a more thorough understanding of a story. Take a look at five recent examples.
Since misinformation surfaced on social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, companies like Facebook and Twitter have been closely watched and criticized. After all, fabricated news stories reached readers primarily through those channels.
“ I think the blame game is ridiculous on both sides. Republicans and Democrats … But when both sides do it, I think the American people see through it,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).(This opinion — expressed by Sen. Paul on CNN and quoted by The Hill — suggests that blame isn’t helpful to lawmakers looking for a solution to the government shutdown. But in the articles we analyzed (published on the second day of the shutdown), it stands alone as the only voice questioning the validity of blame. Instead, outlets such as Fox News, The Hill and AP focused on the so-called “blame game,” hyping it with sensational language, focusing on lawmakers faulting each other, and leaving out specifics about the issues that were still being negotiated.
As Women’s March protests continued for a second day, much of the news coverage portrayed them positively and suggested they were successful. To determine whether something is successful, one must measure it against a standard, and this is something you won’t necessarily find in the outlets we analyzed. Here are a few techniques four outlets used to portray the events in a positive way.
Here are three significant events that occurred involving the U.S. media over the last couple of days. First, Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain criticized President Trump’s treatment of the media, suggesting his criticisms threaten or undermine the country’s democracy. Then Trump announced the so-called “Fake News Awards” the GOP published for what he described as “the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media.” Finally, the media reported on both these things and either implied the senators were wrong to make their comments (in the case of Fox News), or implied the president was wrong to make his (as CNN, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times did). Here’s an example from CNN:
If you mention DACA or the issue of illegal immigration to a group of Americans, you’ll likely get some strong and oppositional responses. It’s a polarizing topic, but that doesn’t mean that news coverage needs to be, too. Rather, having more neutral and balanced reporting will give us a more complete view of the issues at play and could help us understand other people’s perspectives.
CVS recently announced it’ll begin including a watermark in ads to identify which images haven’t been digitally altered, and it’ll ask the brands it sells to do the same. The thinking behind the measure is that digitally altered images can encourage people to have an unrealistic body image, which “is a significant driver of health issues,” according to Helena Foulkes, who leads CVS’ retail business.
Media coverage can affect legal proceedings by introducing bias, often before a case has even gone to court. If the justice system is a tool to discover the truth while protecting the presumption of innocence, then ideally reporting would remain impartial.
Publicly resigning from an executive position may well be a failure, but that doesn’t mean it’s shameful. Failures aren’t necessarily humiliating, and the media doesn’t need to suggest they are. Yet this is how The Washington Post and The New York Times portrayed Steve Bannon’s resignation from Breitbart.
The outlets create this view with opinion, and by contrasting dramatic descriptions of Bannon’s prior successes with dramatic descriptions of his departure. The contrast could portray the career change as a fall from grace and disparage Bannon as a person.
Soon after the Department of Homeland Security announced its decision to terminate El Salvador’s Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation, news outlets published one-sided articles, suggesting the effects would either be largely problematic or largely beneficial. As you might guess, outlets like The Washington Post suggested it’d be bad and outlets like Breitbart suggested it’d be good. The thing is, they didn’t do it strictly with data. Let’s play two rounds of “Good slant / bad slant” to show you what we mean.
Most news reporting the Knife analyzes has a high degree of distortion, meaning it’s not very objective or data-based. In fact, the average article we analyze is 48 percent distorted, and that’s the average of at least 2,192 news articles we’ve examined over the past six months!
In a Jan. 2017 interview, economist, physicist and mathematician Eric Weinstein said, “At the moment, we’re in this crazy narrative over fake news, where fake news is supposed to be limited to things that are just made up and untrue. But the problem is … how many different ways does [the] news manipulate us into thinking something that isn’t true, or shading our feelings or emotions?” According to Weinstein, there are four kinds of “fake news”: Narrative, algorithmic, institutional and false news.
Many of us rely on media outlets to stay informed about the world. What happens when those outlets make mistakes? For one, the mistakes can misinform. They can also further media bias, moving us away from objective facts.
Our Top 5 list this week includes inaccuracies about a journalist, fact-checking Donald Trump and various international relations.
We use the word “spin” to refer to words and phrases that aren’t fact-based or measurable. Instead, they’re inherently vague or dramatic, and when reporters use them they’re often presenting their own opinion as if it were fact. Such language is useful in some types of writing, such as novels or poetry, but it doesn’t lend itself to objective news.
President Trump and Steve Bannon disparaged each other in recent remarks, and this poses a challenge to journalists who want to be objective. On one hand, it’s important to inform the public of statements the president and other public figures make. On the other, depending on how the media handles the information, news outlets can inadvertently promote dishonor and prejudice.
The media plays a critical role when our leaders say false or misleading things; news outlets can hold them accountable and inform the public about discrepancies in their statements. In our editorial on fact checking Donald Trump, for instance, we cited the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which considers two of its pillars to be “assembling and verifying facts” and serving “as an independent monitor of power.”
The media coverage we analyzed on Iran provided few specifics about the issues people are protesting about. That’s in part because news outlets made spin more important than data in their reporting.
We analyzed the coverage of Breitbart’s and Steve Bannon’s decision to cut ties with a former contributor, Paul Nehlen, after the outlet said Nehlen “made a series of anti-Semitic and pro-white supremacist comments” on Twitter. It seems there are two stories here: One attempts to expose the hateful nature of Nehlen’s comments, and the other tries to expose inaccuracies made by outlets that reported the first story. Both approaches are constructive in principle, but their execution reinforced some of the problems the outlets tried to point out. Here’s a look at the coverage and where it fell short.
Increased consumer spending clearly has benefits for economic growth, employment and investors. Yet the media coverage of Mastercard’s retail sales report only focused on the positives — which made it slanted — and it largely did so in vague terms. More importantly, it supported an assumption that increased spending is good in general, without drawing attention to the fact that this is an assumption, and exploring it.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News