The media plays a critical role when our leaders say false or misleading things; news outlets can hold them accountable and inform the public about discrepancies in their statements. In our editorial on fact checking Donald Trump, for instance, we cited the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which considers two of its pillars to be “assembling and verifying facts” and serving “as an independent monitor of power.”
This week, media outlets fact-checked Trump’s tweet about aviation fatality statistics. While they were correct in pointing out the flaws in his implication that he was responsible for the low death rate (see our Raw Data here), the media’s coverage of his tweets was limited in a couple of ways. First, it missed that Trump’s tweet was an implication; and second, some media outlets used dishonorable comments to point out the flaws in Trump’s tweet. Let’s explore.
Missing the implication
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted, “Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news – it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”
Trump doesn’t directly say that he’s the reason for the lack of commercial fatalities. He does imply it though — through juxtaposition. None of the media outlets we analyzed acknowledged this distinction.
Why does this matter? First, it’s an opportunity to build public awareness of how juxtaposition can be used to make implications. (The media itself does this a lot, as we explored here and here.) You can take any two events that have something in common, place them next to each other and people may assume one caused the other.
It can be a sneaky way to lead an audience to a specific conclusion without having to actually say it (or provide data to back it up). And because it’s not directly stated, it can be harder to hold someone accountable for it. For instance, it’s trickier to sue someone for libel or slander for something they implywithout stating it outright. News outlets could draw attention to these types of implications and help readers not be fooled by them.
The second reason this matters relates to Trump’s relationship with the media. Because he technically didn’t “take credit” for the aviation statistic, as outlets claim, he can reasonably deny that he did. In a sense, the media got it wrong, and Trump could use this to fuel his criticism of what he calls “fake news.” News outlets could be more rigorous and precise by acknowledging he implied he was responsible.
Data or dishonor?
Some outlets only used data and facts in order to disprove that Trump was responsible for the aviation safety record. For example, The Hill quotes Trump’s tweet and then immediately points out, “There has not been a fatal passenger airline crash in the U.S. since 2009.” The outlet uses data to show that the lack of fatalities in the U.S. precedes Trump’s tenure in office, and readers may infer that the statistic isn’t directly related to him.
Some news outlets, however, go beyond just reporting data and include opinions that dishonor Trump and others. Consider this excerpt from The Atlantic:
Every president likes to take credit when things go well and pass along blame when they go poorly, but no president is as willing to take that pattern to its brazen extreme like Donald Trump.The statement may dishonor all presidents, and especially Trump, by suggesting they are more concerned with their public image than taking responsibility for their actions and governing the nation. It discredits not just Trump’s implied claim about the 2017 aviation stats, but the president himself. The Atlantic may have a point about Trump’s behavior — but it’s opinion, not fact. It doesn’t belong in objective news reporting.
Facts are sufficient to hold politicians accountable for what they say. Character attacks are not necessary.
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