President Trump and Steve Bannon disparaged each other in recent remarks, and this poses a challenge to journalists who want to be objective. On one hand, it’s important to inform the public of statements the president and other public figures make. On the other, depending on how the media handles the information, news outlets can inadvertently promote dishonor and prejudice.
The four media outlets we analyzed on this subject did not bring awareness to the disparaging nature of the comments, nor their effects. They also included distortions that make spotting the latter more difficult. Here are two examples.
Slant: Favoring one perspective above others
The four articles were mostly slanted, in that 73 percent or more of the information in each supported only one point of view. Often, this happens at the expense of data that would provide a more complete, balanced picture.
In Fox News’ case, the slant supported the notion that Bannon has “lost his mind” and betrayed Trump, and that the president was right to disparage him publicly. The outlet included mostly unflattering opinions and tweets about Bannon, and emphasized Trump’s reported reaction by adding its own opinion about how he might have felt about it.
For instance, Fox opened its article by describing Trump’s statement as a “blistering takedown,” implying a victory of sorts for the president. It also described Bannon as “the self-professed mastermind behind President Trump’s election,” adding that “It’s probably safe to say” that Bannon “won’t be back in 2020.” Fox didn’t back these statements with data or statements Bannon has made in the past.
CNN and The New York Times, which were the most slanted, and The Washington Postdiffered slightly. Like Fox, they also suggested this is the end for Bannon and his relationship with Trump. Yet their angle wasn’t that Trump was right or wrong in disparaging Bannon, but that the whole exchange is a big, dramatic deal. You can tell by the outlet’s use of spin.
Spin: Sensational, subjective or vague language that often supports slant
Eighty-one percent of the Times’ coverage was spun. The paper wrote that Trump “essentially excommunicated,” “excoriated,” “fired back at” and “berated” Bannon with a statement that was “brimming with anger and resentment.” All these descriptions are the newspaper’s subjective interpretation of Trump and his mindset, yet they’re written as fact.
The other three articles used similar language to describe the events. (For more examples, take a look at our Top Spin Words.) Describing dishonorable remarks with sensational language adds fuel to the fire because it’s easy to get caught up in the drama.
Instead, outlets could just report what the two men said with no added flair, and readers could assess it at face value. If the media refrained from injecting its own sensationalism and dishonor, it might become more apparent that the president and his former strategist are indeed disparaging each other publicly, and readers may be more likely to ponder what that means for society.
One of the most problematic effects of speaking dishonorably about someone is it changes the way we think about him or her in an irrevocable way, creating a type of prejudice based on hearsay. In this way, it’s a form of violence.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1963, “The reason I can’t follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everybody blind.” King advocated for peaceful means to overcome prejudice, hate and violence, and there’s wisdom in his approach, since fighting violence with violence tends to obscure the initial attack instead of exposing it.
Exposing wrongdoing and bringing awareness to its effects stands a greater chance at solving issues like dishonor, hate and violence. Responding to it with the same or similar means, as Trump, Bannon and the media did, simply helps perpetuate an age-old problem. To change it, someone must take the high road. Trump and Bannon could follow due process if there’s been wrongdoing; the media could bring awareness to the effects of dishonor and report the news objectively. Who goes first?
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