There’s been much debate over the sexual misconduct allegations against Roy Moore. Fox News host Sean Hannity was caught in the middle of it after he addressed the subject on his show. Let’s examine the media’s reaction to Hannity’s comments.
Much of the media coverage has suggested (or stated outright as The Washington Post andLos Angeles Times did) that Hannity “defended” Moore, which may be inaccurate. What Hannity did was question the accusationsagainst Moore, and suggest the Republican candidate shouldn’t be judged prematurely.
“Every single person in this country deserves the presumption of innocence,” Hannity said, according to a transcript of his show last week. “With the allegations against Judge Moore, none of us knows the truth of what happened 38 years ago.”This is different from defending Moore’s specific position or his alleged conduct with women. It’s a seemingly small distinction, but if we don’t make it we can end up trying Moore in the court of public opinion — and that’s what has happened.
Because of its platform, reach and authority, the media can greatly influence public opinion. In this sense, it bears greater responsibility to provide data-based, unbiased news. Sometimes, even when an article is data-based, it requires additional data or perspectives that would provide balance — which was missing in this coverage.
For example, the articles we analyzed cite the allegations against Moore, but none of them point out that no evidence proving sexual misconduct has been verified by authorities. They also don’t mention that Moore has not been charged and that his case has not been tried in a court of law. The allegations may prove to be true, but that can only be determined by our judicial system. The problem arises when the media implies guilt before due process has been followed, which is what Hannity originally called attention to.
On Tuesday, Hannity seemed to change his stance, saying Moore should “immediately and fully come up with a satisfactory explanation for [his] inconsistencies.” In covering this show, many outlets implied Hannity had erred in his original comments, and the dramatic language or spin (noted below in italics) is a tell tale sign. For instance, The Washington Postwrote:
Hannity’s escalated remarks came days after critics bashed the conservative host for appearing to defend Moore and suggesting that the accusations against him might be false. The wave of criticism prompted coffeemaker company Keurig and other sponsors to say they would no longer be advertising on Hannity’s Fox News show.The following day, the Post said Hannity “went soft” by not calling for Moore to drop out of the race, which again implies he should have:
“Yet Hannity lost his nerve, telling viewers on Wednesday that Moore’s fitness for office ‘shouldn’t be decided by me.’”We realize some of this may be difficult to examine, especially given the nature of the allegations against Moore. It’s easy to focus on the possibility of these being true, because of the potential damage to the accusers. But it’s also important to consider the damage to the accused, if the allegations prove to be false — it could alter the outcome of the Senate race, and Moore’s career.
There is also damage even if the allegations turn out to be true, because Moore’s character is attacked before due process is followed. Again, most media coverage disproportionately weighs the accuser’s side of the story, and rarely brings attention to character assassination and other damage that can occur in the court of public opinion.
Unbiased news tries our perceptual and emotional limitations. It challenges us to remain objective and critical, to divorce ourselves from the content of a story and examine the principles involved — much like the justice system. It is not an easy task, but it’s how we can achieve ethical media. Without tempering journalism with these guidelines, we risk becoming a society in which questioning becomes a punishable act.
Disclaimer: The Knife does not side with any one party in the Roy Moore or Sean Hannity coverage. The Knife does not favor and is not affiliated with any news outlet. What we do support is due process and the principle of presumed innocence, upon which the U.S. justice system stands. We also advocate for freedom of expression, which isn’t synonymous with expression that’s free from responsibility or accountability.
Disclaimer 2: No Keurig machines were harmed in the making of this analysis.
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