On Wednesday, Congress passed the final version of its tax reform bill. The legislation is complex, and Americans are likely trying to figure out how it will affect them. They might be asking if the tax bill will help or hurt the middle class. How will it affect the economy? What will the short-term and long-term consequences be?
Considering multiple viewpoints and as many relevant facts as possible can help us examine questions like these. But this can be difficult when news outlets slant information in favor of one perspective or another by cherry-picking facts and front-loading articles with positive or negative opinions.
Let’s take a look at how news outlets did this in their coverage.
Both Breitbart and CNN included some findings about the tax bill from the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT). Let’s start with Breitbart.
“[The JCT] found that the American middle-class receives a larger proportional tax cut compared to the country’s wealthiest one percent. The JCT study revealed that the middle-class will receive half of the bill’s tax cuts, while those making over $1 million a year will only receive a 14 percent of the tax cuts.”
Given the above, the tax bill seems pretty beneficial for the middle class, right? Now let’s compare this to CNN, which includes JCT findings that Breitbart left out:
“The Joint Committee on Taxation found that all income groups will, on average, see a tax cut in 2019, though the projections worsen over time. In 2019, all taxpayers would see an 8% tax cut. The JCT, however, found that by 2027 taxpayers earning up to $75,000 would receive a tax increase.”
See the difference? Breitbart included the tax cuts the middle class* will receive, according to the JCT, but didn’t mention that by 2027, some will actually have a tax increase.
By selectively cutting and pasting information – a.k.a. cherry picking, Breitbart painted a rosier picture of the tax bill than might be warranted when looking at a more comprehensive view of the JCT findings.
*Note: Definitions for the middle class vary, but the Pew Research Center says the “national middle-income range” in 2014 was between $42,000 and $125,000.
We know that first impressions can greatly influence the opinions we form about people. A similar effect can occur when news outlets front-load an article with positive or negative views about the tax bill.
Take The New York Times, for example. Before we are given any concrete facts about the bill, The Times includes quotes from Democrats saying it’s “nothing short of an abomination” and that lawmakers “will be cleaning up this mess and the blunders … all of next year.” Moreover, it’s not until later in the article that we see quotes from anyone praising the bill. Doesn’t give a very good first impression of the bill, does it?
What you can do
A media outlet can’t possibly include all the known information and views about the tax bill in one article. It is up to us — the media consumers — to become aware of what information is missing, which perspectives are given more weight than others, and how each of these factors can influence our opinions. Doing so can help us become less susceptible to media bias and make more informed decisions.
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