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.
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 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 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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
We usually write our Raw Data section using information extracted from the articles we analyze. Yet this time we pulled more than half of the data from external sources. Why? Because the articles were largely opinion, with little information about the general assembly itself. When we did find data, it was mostly about one subject: Trump.
It’s beneficial for the media to inform readers of Trump’s potential impact on this year’s General Assembly, particularly in reference to his proposed U.N. reforms or issues such as Iran or North Korea. But the coverage we analyzed focused almost exclusively on Trump and contained dramatic speculation about what he might do or say, with minimal information about other issues (which is slant). When it came to information about Trump’s potential impact, the articles were lacking in specifics (more slant).
Here’s how these slant issues appear in the articles:
One of the downsides of biased, sensationalized news is it can become the norm, setting expectations to produce and consume dramatized content. The coverage we analyzed of Saturday’s protests in Washington elucidates this point. For contrast, here’s what reportedly happened in a nutshell: Several groups representing different ideologies protested their cause(s) around the Mall in Washington, while other previously scheduled events also took place.
There was some face paint, “Make America Great Again” hats and “a $3 piece of multigrain toast” involved, but all the rallies took place in a civil fashion and then demonstrators went about their business. Outside of what was planned, nothing happened. But that’s not how these four sources reported it — here’s a look at each of their angles.
It may not be possible to guarantee that your information is completely protected, but there are measures you can take to lessen the possibility of theft, and to prevent any potential theft from negatively affecting your financial standing.
According to studies conducted by the Pew Research center, about 64 percent of U.S. residents have experienced a “major” data breach. About 49 percent felt their data was less secure at the time of the January 2017 survey than it had been five years prior.
Yet as noted in our analysis Equifax and data privacy: Are consumers powerless?, while consumers voice concerns about data privacy, some don’t take steps to protect themselves from theft:
Equifax has a responsibility to protect its customers’ information, especially given how much it has and the sensitivity of that data. Given the recent breach, it’s important for the media to examine the company’s inability to do so.
Many outlets did just that in their coverage. But the articles we analyzed focused almost exclusively on what Equifax did or didn’t do, without considering other factors (which is slant), and used dramatic words that sensationalize the company’s failures (which is spin). This reporting may suggest Equifax is solely to blame. Yet where does that leave consumers? Did they play a role in this? What can they do now?
The sources we analyzed on Congress’ joint resolution on the violence in Charlottesville accurately reported the contents of the bill. However, they gave more weight to the part of the bill that calls for Trump’s condemnation of white supremacists than they did to the practical steps the bill proposes to reduce violence (e.g. improving reporting of hate crimes and conducting thorough investigations of them). The emphasis may suggest that whether Trump denounces these groups or not is of higher import.
In some outlets, condemnation became the focal point. For example, Al Jazeera’s headline said, “Congress challenges Trump to address white supremacy.” Reuters emphasized this in its headline as well, and dedicated its lead paragraph to it:
The U.S. Congress passed a resolution late on Tuesday calling on President Donald Trump to condemn hate groups after Trump was criticized for his response to the violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a month ago.
Why the media reported on this portion of the bill is understandable. Lawmakers from both major parties, business leaders and foreign heads of state criticized Trump’s remarks last month, saying his comment that there was “blame on both sides” did not sufficiently denounce the white supremacist groups that were in Charlottesville. If Congress passes a resolution calling for him to denounce those groups, that’s important to know.
There’s also value in the public knowing the president’s position on the events, and a statement could comfort those who were directly affected by them. Given Trump’s position and authority, a public denouncement could also influence the decisions of people who consider enacting violence in the future.
That said, it wouldn’t directly stop people from choosing hateful acts. As we said in a recent article, condemnation cannot cause less hate and violence.
Yet this is an underlying assumption in these articles, and in some of the sources they cite. Considering the criticism Trump received after not condemning the groups in Charlottesville (which all the articles mention), and that the bill is intended to address the type of violence that occurred, when you put the two together, it could suggest that a condemnation now may address the problem. The articles support the assumption through the prominence they give to the subject both in positioning and amount of coverage, and also through the use of vague, dramatic language to describe it.
For instance, The Washington Post wrote that the bill “will be presented to Trump for his signature in an effort by lawmakers to secure a more forceful denunciation of racist extremism from the president.” The phrase “more forceful denunciation” isn’t precise and implies Trump didn’t condemn the groups forcefully enough when he spoke after the incident. Had he done so, would we be closer to solving the problem?
Al Jazeera offers another example, writing that human rights experts at the U.N. “called on the US and its leadership to ‘unequivocally and unconditionally’ condemn racist speech and crimes, warning that a failure to do so could fuel further violent incidents.” This states that not condemning violent acts could incite more of them, which may imply that denouncing can prevent them. This doesn’t follow.
As noted above, there may indeed be benefits from Trump making this type of public statement, but to confuse this with an assumption that it can solve hate and violence could perpetuate the problem. It may suggest that whether this type of violence continues depends on the president’s words or his government’s actions. Ultimately, all Americans share responsibility for the violence in our communities.
In our society, we often blame specific individuals or groups for the existence of hate and violence, without considering how everyone participates. This perspective can become compounded and harder to see when it’s promoted in the media, or when news outlets don’t explore other points of view. In this case, for the outlets to make Trump’s condemnation the main focus of the coverage could distract us from examining others’ responsibility in the matter, as well as our own.
Humanity has been trying to solve the problem of violence for millennia. If we are to build a country where “there is no place for hate and violence,” as Rep. Gerry Connolly put it, it may be helpful to examine the problem through critical thinking and with a willingness to look at our own responsibility — and hold the media to this standard, too. Without this, we may miss exploring new ways of addressing the issue.
It may not be surprising that media outlets depicted Clinton along partisan lines in their coverage of her recent interview. Fox News and The Daily Caller portray Clinton as weak or a sore loser, whereas CNN and CBS make her look more responsible and blame Trump.
What’s fascinating is that the data they used to report their stories all comes from the same place, from her interview. They even included many of the same passages, yet how she’s portrayed varies greatly depending on the outlet.
How does that happen? Slant! Reporters cherry-pick the quotes they include or omit, and use placement to favor certain statements over others.
Take a look at the information included or omitted by each of the four outlets we analyzed:
Monday’s coverage of Pope Francis’ interview suggests climate change either led to or exacerbated recent hurricanes like Harvey and Irma. For instance, Reuters wrote, “Pope Francis said the recent spate of hurricanes should prompt people to understand that humanity will ‘go down’ if it does not address climate change and history will judge those who deny the science on its causes.”
The sources we analyzed weren’t forthright about the assumption. In other words, they juxtaposed climate change with the hurricanes, which is what can lead readers to connect the dots, but they didn’t explicitly state the connection between the two, so it could easily be accepted without question. Did climate change cause or exacerbate these hurricanes? Wouldn’t you know it — that’s the missing data in the media coverage of this story.
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