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.
Adding dramaThe words and phrases outlets use do more than just communicate facts. They can also communicate opinions and could inspire emotional responses.
Take this line from The Washington Post, for example:
“The tweet was deleted within hours, probably guaranteeing it will never be forgotten, and leaving people baffled as to why Ryan ever thought it would make a good advertisement for the tax plan’s supposed middle-class benefit.”The above makes for good creative writing but it isn’t objective. If you strip out the spin, you’re left with something less evocative but more data based:
The tweet was deleted within hours. People criticized the tweet.Another example was from Business Insider, which said Twitter users “roast[ed]” and “slammed” Ryan, and the tweet “elicited outrage.”
Examples like these are what contributed to The Post’s and Business Insider’s high spin scores — 58 and 53 percent, respectively (the higher the rating the more spun the coverage).
Was Ryan’s tweet the best illustration of the tax bill’s benefit? Probably not. But the facts are he posted it, it was criticized and it was deleted. Whether it was a “flub,” as CNN put it, is a matter of opinion and may suggest it was an act worthy of humiliation or embarrassment.
One-sided reportingProviding different perspectives on Ryan’s tweet can give people a broader context in which to evaluate the facts. But when outlets cherry-pick dramatic quotes, it amplifies and reinforces a narrow point-of-view: Ryan’s tweet was embarrassing and makes the GOP tax cuts look like a scam.
The Washington Post, CNN and Business Insider got slant scores of 78, 73 and 62 percent, respectively. This meant they mostly supported the above perspective, and they lacked alternative viewpoints.
AP got a lower slant score (39 percent) because it was more balanced — it was more impartial in presenting different points of view. For example, another viewpoint is when AP noted Ryan “has posted several other examples of worker pay increases and bonuses since the overhaul, some as much as $1,000.” If we read this, we know he’s not only tweeting about someone earning an extra $1.50 per week. CNN, The Post and Business Insider did not include this information.
Faulty reasoningFor the most part, the outlets we analyzed didn’t directly use faulty reasoning. Because of this, their illogic ratings were low. But the media doesn’t necessarily have to use faulty reasoning directly in order to promote illogical thinking. If outlets quote others using flawed logic, and then use spin and slant that support it, this could influence how readers interpret and perceive the facts. Our logic ratings take into account faulty reasoning that is implied or indirectly supported by the articles, which is why The Post, CNN and Business Insider had higher illogic scores than AP, which didn’t contain flawed reasoning, indirect or otherwise.
For example, The Post and CNN quoted Nancy Pelosi saying, “Paul Ryan deleted his embarrassing tweet of a blatant admission because he and Republicans don’t want you to know the truth: the #GOPTaxScam is a gift to corporate America and the top 1% at your expense.” No counter arguments were provided.
Pelosi is jumping to conclusions by calling the tweet a “blatant admission” that the tax cuts are a “scam.” We can’t infer Ryan’s private thoughts or motivations based on a single action: deleting the tweet.
Here’s another example from CNN: “House Speaker Paul Ryan deleted a tweet Saturday touting the GOP tax overhaul after critics called him out for appearing out of touch with the reality of low-income individuals’ financial situations.”
Is this the most likely explanation for why Ryan tweeted what he did? Another possibility is he, or whoever manages his social media, is in “touch” with “reality,” but nonetheless chose to publish the tweet, at least for a few hours. Beware of an availability bias when evaluating alternative explanations — just because another interpretation is hard to imagine, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less likely.
A more data-based approachAP had the highest overall integrity rating with 76 percent — compare this to Business Insider, CNN and The Post, which got 49, 45 and 39 percent, respectively. This is because AP reported the facts without adding much drama, while it also provided other perspectives. This can help readers form their own opinions about Ryan’s tweet relatively free from any biases and editorialization by the journalist. Readers can then decide for themselves if the tweet was a mistake or not, or what it means about Ryan.
Why data-based reporting?Journalism, if done responsibly, can be a powerful tool for holding our politicians to a high standard. How well news outlets are able to do this, however, depends in part on the public’s trust that media companies are a reliable source of information. This trust is at risk when they sensationalize and cherry-pick information, so it’s counterproductive to do this instead of reporting only the facts.
Also, if the goal is to hold politicians to a high standard and inspire change, is sensationalizing their actions and promoting public humiliation the best way to do this? Probably not.
Written by Shane Mottishaw
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