The ‘do not congratulate’ coverage favored bias over facts and balance. Here’s how.

A substantial amount of news coverage these days dramatically portrays President Trump and the White House as irresponsible and in “chaos,” and the coverage of the call between Trump and Putin is no exception. This was actually the slant in three of the four articles we analyzed — the fourth had a different angle.

There may be problems with Trump’s decision to handle the conversation with Putin as he did, and with the leak as well. But the outlet’s focus on drama and its depiction of Trump as inept make it harder to evaluate what actually happened and the possible consequences.

There are many ways to slant information. This analysis examines a few slant techniques in the context of this story. By becoming aware of them and how each works, you can more easily identify what’s “between the lines” in the news and elsewhere, without simply taking the bias for granted.

Implication

The Washington Post broke the story after White House officials leaked notes of briefing materials for the call with President Vladimir Putin. The Post, as well as other outlets we looked at, made the assumption that Trump consciously disregarded the briefing materials’ recommendations. Yet the Post also mentioned he may not have read the notes, which is inconsistent with the notion that he intentionally defied the advice.

Still, the outlet gave more weight to the first assumption. The impression this might give is that Trump, as a leader, is impulsive, irresponsible and that he prioritizes his wants above national security. Juxtapose that with the backdrop of allegations of collusion with Russia (which the Post did), and you may assume Trump is overly friendly with Putin because he colluded with Russia. The problem is, these are implications that the outlet doesn’t support with data in the article.

Here’s an excerpt of the article; the specific language that favors the slant is underlined:

Trump’s national security advisers warned him not to congratulate Putin. He did it anyway.
President Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers Tuesday when he congratulated Russian President Vladi­mir Putin on his reelection — including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” according to officials familiar with the call.
Trump also chose not to heed talking points from aides instructing him to condemn the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain with a powerful nerve agent, a case that both the British and U.S. governments have blamed on Moscow.

These are the article’s headline and first two sentences. The placement high in the article and repetition give greater weight to the main perspective, and may lead to a type of cognitive bias called “anchoring.” Alternative perspectives weren’t mentioned until later, or not at all. For example:

  • Trump may not have read the notes (mentioned in 11th sentence).
  • Obama also congratulated Putin in 2012 (24th sentence).
  • As president, Trump has the authority to override his staff’s advice (not included).
  • He may have been strategic in his choice, as opposed to impulsive (not included).

Again, the president’s handling of the call may point to potential problems in his leadership, but it would be best to give readers balanced information rather than providing conclusions for them.

Spin

“Spin” is dramatic, subjective, vague or figurative language that often supports slant. Here’s some of the spin (noted below) in Politico’s headline and beginning.

Kelly furious over Putin 'DO NOT CONGRATULATE' leak
Other GOP officials have expressed alarm that such a closely guarded detail found its way into media accounts.
White House chief of staff John Kelly is furious over the leak of briefing materials prepared for President Donald Trump’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a White House official told POLITICO on Wednesday, as the West Wing faced another wave of damaging news coverage following the revelation.

The dramatic emphasis on Kelly’s and others’ supposed emotional response to the leak supports the slant and gets in the way of evaluating the situation using objective facts. It also obscures the details of the conversation with Putin, and how the exchange could affect the U.S. and its relations with Russia. In effect, very little attention was given to this point in the coverage. Instead, readers are encouraged to focus on drama.

Opinion stated as fact

Sometimes outlets go beyond implication and state their opinions as fact. The Atlantic provides an example (the spin is also noted below). Its coverage was different from the Post and Politico’s in that it criticized the media’s favoring of the drama of the supposed White House “chaos,” but it was the same in that it didn't’ balance that perspective. Pointing out the sensationalism could encourage critical thinking, but the point gets lost when the article does it with its own sensationalism.

… this paves the way for the story to slip further into the familiar territory of internecine warfare, weaponized leaks, and fear and loathing inside the Trump West Wing.

Given the article wasn’t marked as an opinion or analysis piece, readers who aren’t aware The Atlantic is a magazine that often includes opinion may mistake sentences like these for fact. It’s possible the officials who leaked the information meant to damage Trump and the administration, but calling this “internecine warfare” and “fear and loathing” is subjective, sensational and may inspire fear about the state of the administration.

To The Atlantic’s credit, it did bring awareness to the way some of the media coverage favored the more sensational aspects of the story rather than issues of consequence.

Juxtaposition

Breitbart had a different slant. It was favorable to the president, suggesting that he was right to congratulate Putin:

Rather than taking a hostile tone, Trump discussed the possibility of a meeting with Putin to discuss many of the issues facing the two countries.

While this is possible, the line assumes to know the president’s reasoning without citing him. Breitbart’s omission of alternate perspectives to its main point of view — such as the possibility that there could be negative consequences to how Trump handled the call — makes this more slanted.

The outlet also included another element in its headline, writing, “Deep State: Officials Leak Dissent After President Donald Trump Congratulates Putin.” Here’s one definition of “Deep State” (don’t mind the spin).

The Deep State is believed to be a clandestine network entrenched inside the government, bureaucracy, intelligence agencies, and other governmental entities. The Deep State supposedly controls state policy behind the scenes, while the democratically-elected process and elected officials are merely figureheads.

Mentioning “Deep State” is a form of juxtaposition. You’re not just reading the news about the phone call. Now there’s the notion of the Deep State in the mix, which is a vague term. More importantly, the headline suggests officials opposed to the president have infiltrated the White House and are acting against the president as part of a “clandestine network.” Perhaps, but the implication is unsubstantiated.

Missing data

You may have noticed the mention of omissions throughout this analysis. Breitbart’s article had an important omission that could change how readers understand the story: it didn’t mention possible issues with Russia’s presidential election, and this was why lawmakers and others criticized the way Trump handled the call.

For instance, Putin’s main opponent, Alexei Navalny, was denied entry to the race due to a prior conviction he claims is without merit. There’s also been speculation that other candidates, such as Ksenia Sobchak, were Kremlin “puppets” whose role was to divide the opposition and/or legitimize the contest. Critics also question Putin’s “landslide” victory (he won 76 percent of the vote), especially in light of protests across the country calling for him to retire last year. There have also been reports of possible rigging in the election.

The other three outlets didn’t include similar contextual information, but they did include criticisms that pointed to the possibility that Putin may have manipulated the election to extend his rule, such as a tweet from Sen. John McCain:

An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election.

Conclusion

All these forms of slant distract from the facts and put the focus on the supposed “backbiting and disorganization” at the White House, as Politico put it. Some of them also train readers to see sensationalism as the norm, and to favor opinion over facts. This kind of news coverage ultimately erodes people’s capacity to think critically and evaluate the country’s leadership objectively.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media