In news reporting, vague, imprecise or dramatic language (spin) can create impressions and implications that aren’t backed by data. This was the most prevalent distortion we found in the coverage of the Senate vote on the GOP tax bill. Here’s what we found in the four outlets we analyzed.
The rush job
The New York Times and The Associated Press (AP) used terms that emphasized the time it took for the bill to pass through both the House and Senate. The Times said lawmakers “raced” and “sprinted,” and AP described the bill’s timeline as “a stunningly swift trip.” Politico wrote that Senate Republicans “scramble[d]” and “frantically” rewrote the legislation. Here’s a more robust example from the Times (the spin is noted in bold):
The lightning-fast trajectory of the bill and the ability to overcome — or ignore — objections that have bedeviled previous attempts to revamp the tax code, highlights the pressure Republican leaders faced to notch a victory after several failed legislative efforts this year.
There are two implications here: One is that the timeline was irresponsible and the bill will carry negative consequences because of it. The other is that Republicans may hold their notching a legislative “victory” more important than their constituents’ interests. There may be truth to both assertions, but neither is supported with data.
AP and Politico referred to Republicans’ actions as “horse trading” happening at the “eleventh hour,” with the latter outlet adding that lawmakers “corralled” votes. Fox News called it “eleventh-hour vote-wrangling.” Aside from the entertainment element these terms impart, “horse trading” can also carry a negative implication, which is that dishonesty or underhanded practices may have been part of the negotiations. Again, that’s possible, but it’s implied, rather than stated with facts.
Say it with data
The most common spin terms across the four articles were instances of vagueness or imprecision. The Times, for example, wrote that Republicans made “a crush of changes” to the legislation, and that party leaders “scaled back some planned tax cuts.” The references may be accurate, but not precise.
Here’s a list of terms the outlets used to describe the tax breaks: large, more generous, modest, more modest, smaller and expanded. Politico also wrote that the GOP bill has “polled poorly” with voters, and AP said the polls showed “scant public enthusiasm.” Sometimes the outlets did back the descriptions with data, but other times they didn’t, so in some instances we’re left to wonder how “large” is large, and how “scant” is scant, for example.
But wait, don’t buy yet!
Depending on the outlet you read, the spin supports an overall implication that the bill will be good for the country (Fox News), or that it won’t (the other three outlets). And subsequent coverage of the legislation suggests the same. For example, Fox News later published an article that depicted the bill’s passing as a heroic feat. Its headline reads, “GOP Senate survived two surprise, nor’easter-like storms to ultimately pass major tax reform.” The Times, on the other hand, suggested a more negative prognosis:
Republicans are preparing to use the swelling deficits made worse by the package as a rationale to pursue their long-held vision: undoing the entitlements of the New Deal and Great Society, leaving government leaner and the safety net skimpier for millions of Americans.
Spin, implication and speculation aside, the bill has yet to be modified and signed into law. Specific data and a comparative framework to understand the bill and its potential consequences would help voters navigate the changes and interact with their lawmakers in a constructive fashion. See our Contextfor that.
Note: The Washington Post published an article by The Associated Press, which we were not able to link to on AP’s site. For this article, we’re referring to AP rather than the Post.
Written by Ivy Nevares
Edited by Ivy Nevares, Jens Erik Gould and Rosa Laura Junco
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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