Ideally, journalists would provide the facts alone and let readers interpret them and form their own opinions. This is what The Knife strived to do in its Raw Data on Steve Wynn’s resignation as the Republican National Congress (RNC) finance committee chairman (which you can read in full here).
However, the news outlets we analyzed didn’t stick to the facts. Instead, they used sensational language (spin) and cherry-picked information (slant) to support a particular viewpoint — that the accusations of sexual misconduct against Wynn reflect poorly on the Republican party and that Wynn is likely guilty. As a result, readers may assume these implications to be true without considering other viewpoints, such as the importance of due process and the possibility that Wynn isn’t guilty.
Here’s a closer look at how this works.
SpinThe bolded words in the sentences below are examples of spin — dramatic words or phrases:
Politico: “But the sexual misconduct allegations against Wynn put Republicans in an untenable situation after the RNC and other GOP officials had ripped the Democratic Party last fall for its connections to Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced movie mogul who raised and contributed large amounts of money for Democrats.”
CNN: “The heat was turned up on Republicans to return donations from the Las Vegas mogul, as the nation continues to face a reckoning over sexual harassment.”
First, these terms have a sensational quality to them — see the Fiction or Factsection for more details.
Second, saying the allegations “put Republicans in an untenable situation” and that “the heat was turned up” in the above context may imply that if Republicans don’t renounce Wynn and return his donations, it will reflect poorly on the party.
This also may imply that Wynn is likely guilty. After all, if he isn’t, why would Republicans need to return his donations? Why would it put them in an “untenable situation”? Granted, the resignation may be affecting the party, but the spin dramatizes this possibility.
Compare this to a version of the facts without the spin:
Democrats have called on Republicans to return money donated by Wynn following allegations of sexual misconduct. Last fall, Republicans criticized the Democratic Party for its connections to Harvey Weinstein, who was also accused of sexual misconduct and had donated money to the Democrats.
It has a different feel to it, doesn’t it?
SlantThe slant ratings for these articles ranged from 66 to 73 percent, meaning they cherry-picked information that supported the same viewpoints discussed above, and downplayed information that opposed them.
Here are some examples that contributed to the articles’ slant scores:
Example 1: CNN associated the accusations against Wynn with the RNC’s support of “controversial Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in the state’s special election.” (Note that Moore has also been accused of sexual misconduct.)
Example 2: Politico downplayed the fact that Wynn denied the allegations by placing this information at the end of the article.
Note that these examples by themselves don’t slant the story. But when you start adding up 1) the RNC’s support of Roy Moore, 2) less emphasis on Wynn’s denial of wrongdoing, 3) the implication this will negatively affect Republicans, and 4) the trend of sexual misconduct accusations across the country, it creates a slant — that Wynn is likely guilty.
Why does this matter?By suggesting the accusations will be problematic for Republicans, the media implies Wynn is likely guilty before it has been proven in a court of law. Why? Because if he isn’t, then his donations and connection to the RNC wouldn’t necessarily “trigger new upheaval” for the party, as the Post put it. Wynn noted himself how we’re “in a world where people can make allegations, regardless of the truth” and someone’s reputation and career can be ruined. This describes a kind of trial by public opinion, and can result in innocent people being prosecuted as though they are guilty.
At the same time, we also live in a world where women, and men, are sexually abused and perpetrators are not always held accountable. Both have serious consequences and there’s no easy solution. Unfortunately, the nuance of these issues is lost when the media dramatizes events and gives more weight to one viewpoint.
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