After the initial reports of Mueller’s indictments broke, news outlets had a lot to say about their potential effects on Washington. The four sources we examined departed from the data of the story (the indictments themselves), each presenting a very different outlook using opinion, implication and spin (bolded). Here’s a snapshot of each bias.
When the Kurdish referendum took place last month, The Knife wrote about how sensational, imprecise or subjective terms (or, spin) made it harder to understand what happened and what the effects of the vote could be. After the Kurdish president stepped down on Sunday, we looked at the same outlets as we did last month and found a similar problem with spin in their coverage
The news is essentially that Twitter released its Q3 report, announced it would no longer sell ads to two Russian networks, and said it had used an incorrect calculation to estimate its monthly user base. It’s also a fact that the company is not currently profitable
The CCP changed its constitution, and media coverage used sensational language and selective quotes portraying President Xi and the party as amassing more power. However, only some outlets include specifics about what might change after this policy shift, which is more informative. Still, this data may be colored by the sensationalist tone throughout.
While the U.S. justice system seeks to adhere to due process (which is fair treatment through the judicial system), the media often uses bias and sensationalism to sway the court of public opinion. Depending on the media’s portrayal of events, readers may prematurely decide someone’s innocence or guilt, often before a case has even gone to trial. Such is the case here.
The articles we analyzed on the Kate Steinle case presented two stories: the details of the trial, and the supposed issue of violent crime and immigrants in the U.S. See how the media bias in each can limit critical thinking and the way we approach such problems.
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Japan would hold an election, we showed how the media mixed fact with opinion in its coverage. The media kept with this trend when reporting on Sunday’s election itself. Specifically, the outlets we analyzed presented a number of opinions about the election results and what may occur as a result, but at times this subjective information was presented as though it were fact. When this happens, it can discourage readers from asking critical questions that could promote a more impartial, consistent and objective view of a news event.
Dramatic and vague terms can create powerful impressions, and when they’re coupled with an absence of data, the combination can be limiting because the impressions aren’t backed by facts. In logic, it’s called an “appeal to emotions” fallacy, which is attempting to win an argument by manipulating emotions, instead of using factual evidence and logical reasoning.
The New York Times and The Hill suggest Tiberi is going to resign because he’s “frustrated” with the Republican Party’s inability to pass major legislation and the “gridlock” in Washington, and that there’s a pattern of congressmen resigning out of frustration. However, Tiberi said he was resigning for personal reasons. So suggesting that his choice was due to “frustration,” when that isn’t what he said, promotes a biased understanding of his decision, and negatively portrays the party.
When Ksenia Sobchak announced her candidacy for Russia’s presidency, news outlets could have provided a lot of useful information, including details on her political platform, or noting she’d be the third woman to ever run for president in Russia. The articles we analyzed questioned and criticized Sobchak’s credentials, but not in a balanced, data-based way. Instead, they used opinion and implication to trivialize or disparage the candidate. Here are seven techniques we identified.
The media coverage we analyzed on the Raqqa operation starts off similarly — using spin to suggest that it’s a major success in the fight against Islamic State. For instance, The Wall Street Journal’s lead sentence says the operation was “driving the extremists from a Syrian city,” and Fox News says IS “was dealt a massive blow.” If people stop reading after the first few paragraphs, they may have the impression that this was a clear victory in the effort to stop the violent organization, which may be an oversimplification of a complex issue.
The coverage we analyzed on Tom Marino’s nomination conveys three points: One, opioid abuse is a problem in the U.S. that needs to be addressed (read more here). Two, last year’s legislation, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, limits the DEA’s ability to stop opioids from entering the black market. And three, Tom Marino, who sponsored the bill in the House, is to blame and he should be barred from any position that would enable him to further contribute to the problem.
In his interview with CNN, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington “seems to relish gossip, rumor, innuendo.” Whether or not this is true for Washington, it appeared to be true during parts of Jake Tapper’s interview, and in the media’s coverage of it.
Below, we’ll explain how the media uses faulty reasoning and emphasizes rumors instead of facts, and how this can promote dishonor.
News outlets use dramatic, opinionated descriptions to characterize Trump’s decision not to recertify the Iran deal. The opinions portray Trump’s decision as problematic – suggesting it could be destabilizing to the U.S.’ role in international relations, spark an arms race or undo progress towards better relations with Iran. These descriptions could bias readers into judging the decision and its effects based on the opinions of reporters, without critically evaluating data-based information about the deal and Trump’s criticism of it.
Here are some examples of dramatic descriptions (spin bolded).
How does the US healthcare system work?
Since Trump’s latest executive order may change aspects of the U.S. healthcare system, it may be useful to know how it currently works. Here’s a brief overview of U.S. healthcare options.
At the White House on Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he “cannot and will not” certify that Iran is complying with its nuclear agreement. Trump said that Iran has committed “multiple violations of the agreement,” was “not living up to the spirit of the deal.” The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that Iran is complying with the deal, under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for reduced economic sanctions.
There are many possible outcomes for the NAFTA negotiations now underway in Washington, but why focus on just one?
The outlets we analyzed suggest this and only this: the agreement may come to an end, and if it does, it’ll be damaging to the economies involved. Terminating the agreement is entirely possible, and Trump has said it’s an option if negotiations don’t meet certain conditions he has. But the outlets don’t back this perspective with a lot of data, and they also don’t mention other outcomes that may be worth considering.
Here are three mechanisms these articles used to favor this impression.
Depending on which news outlet you read, you might get a different understanding of Puigdemont’s speech and whether Catalonia declared independence or not. For instance, the Los Angeles Times reports that he “stops short” of declaring independence, while El País says he “declared independence unilaterally.” The variations could give readers different impressions of what’s going to happen in Catalonia, or what measures the Spanish government might take in response.
Below, compare how three outlets reported on Puigdemont’s speech, and then compare these to an official Catalan government translation of what he said. Do any of the media’s interpretations misrepresent his speech?
Imagine a friend tells you about a disagreement two people are having: “I knew their relationship had soured, but I didn’t know the rift was this major. One day they’re fine, and then suddenly they’re in a major standoff!”
We didn’t make up the terms in red — they’re what Bloomberg used to describe the recent U.S. and Turkey visa suspensions, and the supposed state of bilateral relations. Notice the impression these terms create and how they stretch or shrink the imagination, while actually giving you little or no data about the issue itself. That’s often what spin does in news reporting.
The Knife has written about how disparaging someone in the media can result in irreversible damage to his or her reputation. President Donald Trump and Sen. Bob Corker’s Twitter exchange was an example of how this can play out in politics. But instead of objectively reporting what the two leaders said – which could have made the dishonor and divisiveness in the tweets more apparent – the coverage we analyzed may have amplified it by adding sensationalism.
Our impressions of what we read can easily be shaped by what data we’re given and what’s withheld. And unless you have prior knowledge of a news event, or a very critical eye, you might not know what you’re missing.
Saturday’s coverage of the protests in Russia provide useful examples of this slant mechanism. We compared two articles from the Russian state-run news agency TASS against three U.S. outlets. One of TASS’ articles, for example, reports on the protest in Moscow, saying “police officers show[ed] restraint” with protesters and made no detainments (the other three outlets reported there were a “few” arrests in Moscow). The impression or bias this article creates is that the protest was low-key, and the government showed leniency and handled the situation well.
Take slanted coverage with missing data, and what do you get? Possibly a negative impression about the news without a solid understanding of exactly what the problem is. This is the case with much of the coverage of Sessions’ Title VII policy change.
The articles we looked at are slanted against Sessions’ change and generally suggest he – and the Trump administration in general – is supporting discrimination against transgender people with “far-reaching implications” and negative effects. However, the outlets, for the most part, don’t include information that would show what the impact of the change might be or how many people it could affect. Without that, we may adopt the bias of the articles without critically understanding the issue.
Over the past week, The Knife has covered analyses ondishonor in the media and news articles that are written like opinion pieces. This analysis encompasses both elements.
In writing about President Trump going to Las Vegas, some news outlets seemed to have used it more as an opportunity to criticize or disparage him, than to report on the situation and the purpose of the trip. Criticism becomes a problem when it’s presented as objective news, especially when it’s dishonorable and attacks a person’s character, instead of focusing on the data of their actions.
U.S.-Cuban relations are “rapidly unraveling” and “tensions” are “escalating” in a dramatic series of events culminating in the U.S.’ decision to expel 15 Cuban diplomats. Or at least that’s the impression you might get from reading some of the coverage of the U.S.’ announcement.
The articles we analyzed contain some sweeping claims and overtly dramatic language that give this impression (such as those in our Top Spin section to the right and Fiction or Fact section below). So if you’re looking closely for where the news isn’t objective or is adding opinion, you can probably spot these easily. Yet, media also uses smaller words like “only,” “but” and “just,” which reinforce the dramatic message more subtly, and thus may be harder to spot.
How often has federal gun control legislation been effected in response to mass shootings?
Three of the articles The Knife analyzed on public officials’ responses to the Las Vegas shooting suggested the Trump administration should have begun policy negotiations on gun control, following the tragedy. Our researchers compiled a list of shootings in relation to changes to legislation at the national level.
The following is a list of U.S. shootings by one or more people that involved four or more victims, as well as federal gun control legislation signed into law over the past 30 years. The shooters’ deaths were not included in the death tolls.
Hours after the initial coverage on the Las Vegas shooting, the media reported on politicians’ responses to the event. The outlets we analyzed biased this coverage, and one of the mechanisms used was juxtaposition — meaning, they brought two or more points together, contrasting or relating them in such a way that they created an implication that wasn’t necessarily true.
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