President Trump said he’d support a government shutdown if there weren’t changes to immigration law. The comments themselves were dramatic and unconventional, and important for the public to know. But the media made them even more sensational.
News outlets cherry-picked the most sensational things he said without giving much context, and then added opinion and biased information that may have left readers misinformed about the situation. They also suggested Trump was impeding the negotiations. The result? Probably a more alarmed readership.
Fast forward to Wednesday, when bipartisan Senate leaders announced they had reached a two-year budget plan. While that plan still needs to be approved by the Senate and House, it moves Congress closer to preventing a shutdown. In hindsight, the added drama in the coverage of Trump’s Tuesday comments seems unnecessary and possibly misleading. Extra drama usually is.
Here’s a guide to how the media made Trump’s comments more sensational:
1. Cherry-picking quotes
In a meeting about MS-13 gang violence, Trump said more than 1,900 words (yes, we counted) — some more pertinent than others to the situation in Congress. The articles we analyzed cited between 86 and 138 of the words he said (between 4.4 and 7.2 percent). While media can’t repeat everything that Trump said, and some is less relevant to what’s going on in Congress, the coverage focused primarily on his most sensational comments, sometimes in a misleading way.
Let’s look at CNN’s headline:
Trump: ‘I’d love to see a shutdown’ over immigrationCompare that to Politico’s:
Trump calls for shutdown if Congress doesn’t pass border-security measuresCNN mischaracterizes what Trump said. In context, he said that if they can’t reach an agreement on certain immigration issues (as Politico says), he’d “love to see a shutdown” over it. He didn’t say he’d love to see a shutdown over immigration in general.
Outlets also left out other things Trump said in the meeting, which was about gang violence. Before making the comment about the shutdown, Trump said: “these incredible professionals at the table cannot do their job unless we change, really, the legislation. … Frankly — I’ll go a step further — if we don’t change the legislation, if we don’t rid of these loopholes where killers are allowed to come into our country and continue to kill — gang members” then he’d support a shutdown.
Without this context, it might seem more like Trump is arbitrarily suggesting he’d “love to see a shutdown,” rather than for a specific purpose. This part of Trump’s statements is fully omitted from two of the articles we analyzed.
Why does this matter? In addition to potentially mischaracterizing what Trump said, headlines like CNN’s are essentially clickbait.
2. Interpreting what he said with opinion
Trump said what he said and people can evaluate its significance. But media does it for us — through its own filter. For instance, NBC News says Trump “cheered on the idea of another government shutdown,” and Politico calls it the “president’s insistence on a shutdown.” As with CNN’s headline above, these statements might mischaracterize what Trump said. It sounds as if he wants a shutdown for the sake of a shutdown.
3. Implying he impeded progress
The outlets contrast Trump’s statement with descriptions of the progress made in negotiations so far, suggesting the president is undermining it. For instance, CNN’s lead sentence concludes that his comments “[undercut] ongoing bipartisan negotiations on Capitol Hill.”
Some outlets are less direct, using juxtaposition to imply Trump’s comments are impeding progress. For instance, NBC says the statement “came amid growing efforts by both chambers of Congress to reach a deal.” It says that “just moments before” the comment, “party leaders in the chamber had expressed optimism” that they’d reach a deal.
4. Not including the specifics
It’s difficult to evaluate the potential effect of Trump’s comments on the budget negotiations or the potential shutdown because the outlets don’t give much background information about these things. What do the different parties want? What’s needed to prevent a shutdown? How does it relate to immigration? There’s a lack of context, and this doesn’t encourage critical evaluation of the issues.
Some might say that Trump’s original comment is where the sensationalism started, and that it may well have impeded negotiations. Perhaps, but if the media amplifies politicians’ most dramatic comments, it may encourage them to keep making such remarks. What if the media prioritized comments that exemplified critical thought and civil discourse instead? Might be a different world.
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