When news outlets misrepresent people, they can create a biased narrative that’s difficult to change.
We chose to include former Google engineer James Damore in our “With Prejudice” series for two reasons: 1) there are significant discrepancies between the memo he wrote and how it was covered in the media, and 2) the media’s misrepresentations when the memo was first leaked have continued and can be seen in the coverage of more recent events — such as a Feb. 15 National Labor Relations Board memo and a Feb. 17 protest at Portland State.
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.
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!
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