Is U.S. President Donald Trump going to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller? That’s what Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) speculated on Friday and what The New York Times and The Washington Post suggested in their coverage of a letter from Trump’s lawyer. Specifically, these outlets imply the letter, which said Mueller improperly obtained emails belonging to Trump’s transition team, was an indication of the president’s efforts to interfere with the investigation—whether by firing Mueller or simply discrediting him.
As we’ll show, The Times and The Post gave few facts to support this speculation and the information they did provide was obscured by subjective, vague language – a.k.a spin. Because the spin and lack of information makes it difficult to evaluate the merit of the speculation (Trump is going to fire Mueller), some readers may not question it and instead accept it as fact, or at least as likely. However, with a few questions that we explore below, you can start to evaluate the speculation for yourself.
First, let’s look at two sentences that support the rumor that Trump is going to fire Mueller (note the spin words bolded).
“The growing criticism of Mr. Mueller has fueled speculation that Mr. Trump may fire him.” (The New York Times)
Note that it’s not necessarily a problem that The Times reports this speculation – after all, some politicians, like Speier, have said they think this might happen. The issue is more how the outlet reports the rumor; it uses spin to frame the letter as part of a trend of “growing criticism” that warrants the speculation.
“The letter from Langhofer is the latest in a series of legal and public relations moves by Trump’s allies to attempt to undermine Mueller’s investigation and portray it as politically motivated.” (The Washington Post)
Here, The Post doesn’t directly suggest Trump will fire Mueller, but does suggest he’s trying to “undermine” due process.
Trump may end up firing Mueller and it’s possible he’s attempting to subvert due process. Yet even so, it’s not responsible reporting for media outlets to imply this is Trump’s intent without providing supporting evidence.
How to evaluate speculation
The following are a few questions you can ask yourself when evaluating speculation in the media:
1. On what data is the speculation based?
Speculation usually doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s often an inference based on a number of facts. What are the facts in this case? That’s part of the issue – The Post and The Times provide few. Here are some facts which The Times and The Post did not include:
This is by no means a comprehensive list of facts. These are just a few bits of information one might examine when evaluating the likelihood of Trump firing Mueller. More facts would be required for a more robust evaluation.
But let’s say you have collected more facts; here are some next steps.
2. Are there other explanations? How do the different explanations compare?
In his book “A Field Guide to Lies, Critical Thinking in the Information Age,” Daniel J. Levitin says, “When evaluating a claim or argument, ask yourself if there is another reason – other than the one offered – that could account for the facts or observations that have been reported.”
In this case, the explanation offered is that Trump might fire Mueller. It’s difficult to come up with other possibilities without knowing what facts the original speculation was based on. But if we look at the above facts, other explanations could be:
Once we come up with alternate explanations, we then need to weigh them against each other and decide which one is more likely. But when doing so, beware of bias and common errors in reasoning. If you found yourself immediately dismissive, or felt uncomfortable in response to some of the above possibilities, it may be an indication of bias. The next step could help.
3. Are any biases clouding your evaluation?
Humans are fallible, but being aware of common errors in reasoning, such as cognitive biases and logical fallacies, can help. Here are two cognitive biases that might influence your evaluation in the previous step:
Availability Heuristic: School of Thought founder Jesse Richardson summarizes this bias as, “Your judgements are influenced by what springs most easily to mind.” In this case, if it’s easier to imagine Trump firing Mueller than not, then you may overestimate the likelihood of the former.
Confirmation Bias: Richardson’s list of cognitive biases says this is when “You favor things that confirm your existing beliefs.” If you are not a fan of Trump, you might look for reasons to prove your beliefs about him are right and ignore views or facts that conflict with your existing opinion.
How the media helps or hinders
In this case, The Post and The Times hindered more than helped. Did you notice how difficult it was to evaluate the speculation based on the few facts we examined above— facts that weren’t even in the articles? And how it took extra effort to strip out the opinion to get to the few facts that were provided (e.g. Trump and his supporters have criticized Mueller)? While it’s not feasible for news outlets to give an explainer in every article, they could provide a few facts and leave out the spin and other bias. They could also consider not including certain speculation.
There is value to speculation – knowing possible outcomes can help readers make better decisions. But there are also potential downsides – it might damage a person’s reputation. In this case, the rumor that Trump is going to fire Mueller supports the notion that he is trying to undermine due process, which may in turn imply he’s trying to hide collusion with Russia. That is a possibility, but if news outlets are going to report a rumor that could damage someone’s reputation, the least they could do is back it up with data.
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