Responsible journalists may find they have a peculiar duty under the Trump administration: How to report on dishonorable comments without also feeding the dishonor.
For the purposes of this analysis, we’re referring to “dishonor” as disparaging or attacking someone’s character, rather than objectively criticizing a person’s actions or results. President Trump is known to make and tweet dishonorable remarks. For example, here’s a tweet from Sunday about former FBI director James Comey:
Slippery James Comey, a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!
How does the press, then, report on tweets like this without becoming part of the problem and adding drama to the situation?
The first step is for news outlets to report what’s said objectively, without adding their own distortions — be it opinion, spin (dramatic or vague language), slant (favoring one perspective) or faulty logic. News outlets fell short in their coverage of Trump’s tweets on Comey. The coverage rated between 31 and 39 percent for overall integrity, meaning, between 61 and 69 percent of each article was distorted.
The Knife also analyzed Trump’s actual tweets about Comey as a fifth source. While Trump obviously isn’t a news organization, the analysis provides an interesting comparison. Here are Trump’s ratings:
- Overall integrity 11% – Trump’s tweets rated lower than the outlets, but not by that much.
- Balance 0% – Trump’s tweets were 0 percent balanced, meaning they were completely one-sided. But two of the media outlets had this rating too.
- Spin 100% – Trump’s tweets rated 100 percent spun. But the outlets weren’t that much more fact-based — they ranged from 74 to 87 percent spun.
- Faulty logic 76% – Compared to the outlets, Trump’s tweets had by far the most faulty logic.
- The outlets and Trump’s tweets both had important instances of misleading information and missing data.
The source material — i.e. the tweets — was distorted to begin with, and the ratings reflect this. But the outlets weren’t rated much better. Ideally, responsible journalists would relay the tweets as objectively as possible. Here are a few examples of where they fell short.
These are the terms the outlets used to describe what Trump said or did with regard to Comey (the spin terms are marked below). Trump...
- “excoriated,” “counterattacked” (The New York Times)
- “bashed,” “used [Muller’s] investigation as a cudgel” (Fox News)
- “unload[ed a] Twitter fusillade,” “lambast[ed],” “fumed,” “lamented” (CNN)
- “assails Comey in tweetstorm,” “sharply attacked,” “unleashed a torrent of tweets,” “trash[ed]” (The Washington Post)
That’s 12 different sensationalized ways of saying one thing: that Trump disparaged Comey in his tweets. How might the outlets’ spin affect readers?
Consider the effect in the context of a yelling match. If two people are yelling at each other at the top of their lungs, it makes it difficult to tell who the adult is in the room — if anyone. Similarly, the media’s spin obscures the nature of Trump’s dishonorable comments by joining in the sensational match, so to speak. And that’s just the spin on one concept — that Trump made disparaging remarks.
Trump is clearly stating his opinion via his tweets. Yet news outlets, if they purport to be publishing objective journalism, lose the luxury of expressing opinion as fact. Yet many slip in their own opinion, and when they do some readers may not distinguish it from the facts. Here’s an example from CNN:
But even those occasions [upcoming meetings Trump has with four heads of state] are unlikely to divert the President's mind from the ever-expanding controversies. Seemingly by the day, the legal distractions have mounted. And next week will provide little respite.
This is the outlet’s opinion and speculation about what might or might not “distract” Trump from his duties. Did CNN attribute this to a verifiable source? No. Did it back its opinion with data? No. Those are two questions that can easily set fact apart from fiction.
As noted earlier, slant exists when an outlet favors one perspective above others. This can limit readers’ understanding of the news, by portraying events as black or white, except they’re rarely that way.
In this coverage, the slant suggested that Comey’s account is true and that it’ll adversely affect Trump. It also added to the dramatic nature of Trump’s tweets. The outlets didn’t provide balance to this slant. Here’s a breakdown:
- One-sided accounts and their effects. The outlets suggested Comey’s version of events is true, but that’s only one side of the story. Trump’s rebuttals may be valid, and that’s worth examining. Similarly, the suggestion that Trump won’t weather this storm may be unfounded.
- Different opinions aren’t new. Considering the situation involves the opinions of two prominent public figures in the U.S. who happen to be in opposition, is it that surprising that the accounts would be entirely different? Probably not. So why hype that?
- What about the arguments? Emphasizing the drama could distract from critically evaluating the points Trump and Comey may have to make. Of the articles The Knife analyzed, only the Post clarified a number of factual ambiguities or inaccuracies inherent in Trump’s tweets.
- Much ado about nothing? Not all the outlets brought to light the fact that Comey’s book hasn’t even been released. So the reactions to it are premature, and limited by an absence of data.
No matter how dishonorable the news, if the press reports the facts objectively without adding its own distortion, readers can come to their own conclusions about what happened, without being led or misled. It could also expose and even help change some of the dishonorable commentary that’s increasingly accepted in society. The media has the power to bring those changes about — all it takes is a commitment to the facts.
Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media