President Trump said he’d support a government shutdown if there weren’t changes to immigration law. The comments themselves were dramatic and unconventional, and important for the public to know. But the media made them even more sensational.
“It was the scariest day on Wall Street in years.” That’s how CNN, one of the four news outlets we analyzed, opened its article on Monday’s decline in the Dow Jones. Notice how CNN’s description creates a powerful impression while providing no data about what happened that day. That’s what spin can do.
Paul Ryan on Saturday tweeted about a woman whose pay increased by $1.50 per week due to the recent tax cuts. He later deleted the tweet. Was it the best endorsement of the tax bill’s benefits? Probably not. But it also probably wasn’t grounds for public humiliation, which is effectively what three of the four outlets we analyzed did.
Here’s a closer look at how they distorted the news of Ryan’s tweet by adding drama, favoring a particular viewpoint and promoting faulty reasoning — and how doing so may be counterproductive.
Justice is blind, but it’s also human. So when there’s data that says Lady Justice might be peeking from under her blindfold, it’s important for the American people to know about it. The coverage of the House Intelligence Committee’s memo provides critical information in this regard, but the coverage itself isn’t blind or balanced — it’s biased. What’s more, the data the coverage is based on is, as of Sunday, incomplete.
On Thursday, the Polish senate passed a bill that would prohibit speech suggesting the country was complicit in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, banning phrases such as “Polish death camps.” This has triggered worldwide debate about the liberties the bill would curtail. There are different perspectives to consider in dealing with such delicate issues, but unfortunately the media coverage didn’t foster this type of constructive discourse. The outlets we analyzed presented little to no data about the reasoning behind the bill, or the effects it could have. Most of the coverage was biased against it and focused instead on controversy — namely, on other countries that oppose the bill. We hope to spur more thoughtful discourse.
A recent Knife analysis observed that our daily news is written with drama, and that subjective opinions are presented as fact. Unfortunately, these tendencies impair critical thinking. The coverage of the State of the Union address is as an excellent example of this type of reporting. Here’s what the four outlets we analyzed wrote, and how it can curtail the way we think.
It only takes reading two headlines about the State of the Union address to recognize that our news media missed a valuable lesson. This morning, CNN’s main headline was “The state of our disunion,” placed above a picture of the president. Last night, The New York Times’ headlinewas about “remarkable turmoil and concern.”
As soon as we published our Raw Data on the recent abortion bill the Senate rejected, there were a series of polarized commentson our Facebook page — and all we did was publish the facts about the vote!
Ideally, journalists would provide the facts alone and let readers interpret them and form their own opinions. This is what The Knife strived to do in its Raw Data on Steve Wynn’s resignation as the Republican National Congress (RNC) finance committee chairman (which you can read in full here).
Question any aspect of Black Lives Matter, and you’re called a racist. Disagree with opening borders to immigration, and you’re labeled a xenophobe. Question the #MeToo movement, and you must be a misogynist.
In our analysis of journalist Cathy Newman’s interviewwith Jordan Peterson, we showed how Newman and subsequent media coverage portrayed the University of Toronto professor as a misogynist for his stance on subjects like the gender pay gap. In addition to conducting a full Knife analysis and rating the coverage (which we discuss in more detail here), we also used the Four Quadrant Model developed by Eric Weinstein, mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital. We found the model insightful and spoke in depth with Weinstein about it. He explained how it can be applied to demonstrate the problems not only with the Peterson coverage, but with many other examples of media misrepresentation.
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