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.”
Let’s rewind to more than a year ago, the morning after Election Day. As Trump gave his acceptance speech, and the reality set in that he had actually won, much of the nation was astonished at an outcome that so thoroughly contradicted the polls. In the following days, we heard many theories: it could have been flawed polling, Comey’s letter about Clinton’s emails, or alleged Russian interference. While media bias was also in the conversation, it took a backseat to the issue of “fake news.”
That’s where a key opportunity was missed. The nation didn’t recognize how distorted news could heighten conflict and even erode our democracy. Let’s explore further.
Much of the coverage during the campaign was biased and promoted a narrative that Trump was an ineffective candidate and would not win. Many were unaware or unaccepting of the fact that a significant percentage of Americans supported him, and this heightened the sense of surprise when he won.
More balanced and fact-based coverage could have helped people understand voters’ priorities, examine why Trump’s message resonated with many of them, and encourage open, critical discourse about it. When the surprise happened, media outlets could have acknowledged their biases and changed course. Instead, many doubled down on the same narratives as before the election, with some furthering the notion that Trump didn’t deserve the position. This has incited more polarization.
Now, we’re one year into Trump’s term, and those narratives have persisted. One could argue that the country is indeed in “disunion,” and that CNN’s headline above is accurate. There is plenty of disagreement and there are aspects of Trump’s leadership that are divisive and dishonorable. But the headline is subjective and sensational; it’s the network’s own opinion, not measurable fact. It suggests the president is solely to blame for our problems, which can prolong a collective denial that America elected him. It can also keep everyone else from seeing how they participate and from engaging in critical discourse about what to do next.
This isn’t just an issue of liberal-leaning outlets. Conservative ones do it too, just with a different slant. Take Fox News’ main headline after the speech. It was a disparaging and sensational depiction of Democrats, suggesting that the “glum” and “scowling” lawmakers opposed unity and a strong economy. That furthers polarization and blame too.
The media has trained us for decades to like entertainment, sensationalism and even dishonor in our news. Now, we’ve voted in a president who often uses these things in his own communication and governing style. This is a reflection of our society’s values, which is something we don’t often consider. Media, news consumers and all citizens have responsibility, not just the president.
At its best, journalism allows a whole community to have access to accurate information. It can give a nation a common fabric to work from and a shared data set that’s objective and true. Without this, we’re left with subjective information, which often impedes us from having true civil discourse and from making good decisions.
As news consumers, we’ve allowed our news to become increasingly politicized and sensationalism to become more acceptable. Events are often reported through a news outlet’s overt agenda. Our daily news is written with drama, and subjective opinions are presented as fact. Unfortunately, these tendencies impair critical thinking. In a democracy, power is vested in the people and exercised by them. If the people tune into the news for entertainment, rather than critical evaluation, this ultimately harms their ability to responsibly exercise that power.
To reverse course, ethical and objective journalism is necessary. At The Knife, our mission is to support this by providing standards that are based on the scientific method. We’ve spent years developing and testing our analysis process, which rates every word, paragraph and sentence of the news for objectivity. In addition to data accuracy, our ratings measure three major mechanisms of distortion used in the media: spin (language that is subjective, vague or dramatic), slant (cherry-picking information to favor one point of view) and logic (the degree to which conclusions are based on sound and valid reasoning). Using this process, The Knife generates numerical ratings measuring the overall integrity of a news outlet’s coverage. We also use our process to publish news without spin and opinion.
In the U.S., we’ve earned the right to freedom of expression on many levels, and we have the First Amendment as its gatekeeper. Now, we need to make sure speech is not only free, but also responsible. That requires standards of accountability in a profession that’s critical to upholding democracy. Otherwise, our media could start to dismantle the very pillars of that democracy.
We live in exceptional times: the Trump presidency, social media, the #metoo movement, global immigration issues, genetic modification, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, climate change, and more. The list of critical issues we face as a nation and world is extensive, and we have varied and competing perspectives on what to do about them. Can we have rational conversations to address these issues responsibly? We believe so. We just need to elevate the quality of our information, and we have a sharp tool for that.
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