How Breitbart distorts the news

It may be apparent to news consumers that Breitbart News’ coverage often contains bias, opinion, sensationalism and, at times, misleading and disparaging statements. But how exactly does its slant work? Does the way it distorts information differ from how other news outlets distort? To examine this question, The Knife did a special analysis on Breitbart's coverage. It chose four articles from the outlet's homepage on a given day — Tuesday of this week — and rated them.

This analysis found subjective and sensational language, a lack of balance and implications that weren’t substantiated. But there was another pattern as well — in all four articles, key information was missing, and these omissions supported the outlet’s slant.

In all the examples, the outlet cherry-picked a small set of data or speculation, and it excluded contextual information about the news topic at hand, as well as any data that might support other points of view. This was a main factor in the articles’ low ratings of between 17 and 25 percent for total objectivity.

Below, find a break down of the four stories. At the bottom of each section, there’s a summary of the particular slant for that story, what data is missing, and how that omission reinforces the slant. In the Raw Data section, there’s a fact-based version of each of the Breitbart articles.

Note: The scope of this analysis was limited and doesn't represent a comprehensive analysis of Breitbart's coverage over time. However, The Knife has also found significant instances of missing data in previous analyses of Breitbart coverage.

Article 1: “Left-Wing Activists Ready for Massive Protests if ‘Tyrant’ Trump Fires Mueller”

Breitbart reported on protests planned by MoveOn and other groups it refers to as “left-wing,” should President Trump fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Reading between Breitbart’s lines, the outlet suggested the groups are acting prematurely and ridiculously, given the White House’s assurances that Trump has no intention of firing Mueller.

If you don’t take a step back from the coverage, Breitbart’s implication may make sense, especially considering what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on the matter: “As we’ve said many times before, we have no intention of firing the special counsel.” It may also seem plausible that the activists are overreacting, given the cherry-picked quotes from MoveOn organizers and one Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL):

My fellow Americans, we must be ready to stand up again and again and answer the call when our nation is under attack and threatened by a tyrant.

But bear in mind Breitbart’s slant that protesters are acting irrationally here is largely relying on missing information. What’s missing?

The perspective that people may have a valid reason to protest. If Trump fires Mueller, that may constitute obstruction of justice given Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s campaign, a charge that could potentially be grounds for impeachment. Wouldn’t these concerns be worth noting in Breitbart’s coverage?

RECAP:

  • What’s the story? Some activists are organizing protests in case Trump fires Mueller.
  • What’s the slant? The move is premature and ridiculous, given the Trump administration has given assurances that it won’t fire Mueller.
  • What’s the missing data? Valid perspectives for preparing the protests.
  • How does the missing data support the slant? Without understanding why people may legitimately oppose firing Mueller, it’s easier to label their actions as irrational.

Article 2: Liberals Concerned Stormy Daniels Obsession Will Hurt Dems in ’18

This article is misleading. It takes Sen. Bernie Sanders’ and CNN’s Van Jones’ conversation out of context, in a way that misrepresents what they said. Compare how Breitbart summarized the conversation …

When asked on Saturday evening if there is a “concern” or “danger” that Stormy Daniels will overshadow the Democrats’ message on the economy, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told CNN’s Van Jones, “absolutely.” Sanders also criticized the media, the Democrats’ tag team partner, for overplaying all things Daniels.

… to the actual exchange:

Jones: Look, I am thinking about the midterm elections. I don’t hear us talking about — as Democrats — ideas as much as porn stars, and Robert Mueller, etc. Is there a concern or a danger that we are in the biggest midterm election of our lives and we’re not talking about the right stuff?
Sanders: Absolutely, that has been my criticism of media from way back when.

Breitbart’s slant is that Democrats’ and the “mainstream media’s” focus on Daniels is going to lose them votes in the midterm elections — it’s not only a generalization, but it also discounts valid reasons for focusing on the Daniels case, and its potential consequences on Trump’s presidency.

RECAP:

  • What’s the story? Jones questioned whether Democrats should be discussing other subjects that could affect the midterm elections, compared to topics like Daniels and Mueller. Sanders agreed.
  • What’s the slant? That Democrats conspire with the press, and they’re going too far with the focus on scandals such as the Stormy Daniels case. That focus won’t win them elections.
  • What’s the missing data? There may be valid reasons for covering those stories, including holding the president accountable. Also, those stories may be decisive for some voters, and may even bolster Democrats in the election.
  • How does the missing data support the slant? The omission paints this picture: Democrats and the media are wrong about Trump, and they’ll likely lose in the elections because of it. However, that doesn’t necessarily follow.

Article 3: Report: Facebook Spent More on Swamp Lobbyists in 1Q than Ever Before

First off, what exactly are “swamp lobbyists”? Breitbart doesn’t define the vague term. The outlet implies Facebook is somehow wrong for lobbying, trying to avoid regulation, or aiming to cover up potential wrongdoing in the data breaches involving Cambridge Analytica. Why else would Facebook spend so much on lobbying, right? Except, where’s the data? Where’s the context?

In its article, Breitbart didn’t provide any data on the Cambridge Analytica case, which would give contextual information on the recent data breaches. What’s the bigger omission in the story? The fact that similar companies — Amazon and Google primarily — spent more than Facebook in lobbying efforts (Amazon and Google spent $3.38 and at least $5 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2018, respectively; Facebook spent $3.3 million). Facebook may have spent more than it did in previous quarters, but the spending doesn’t seem abnormal when compared to other large tech companies. Also, there’s the implication that lobbying is indicative of wrongdoing. If it is in this case, Breitbart didn’t back this with data.

RECAP:

  • What’s the story? Facebook spent $3.3 million on lobbyists during the first quarter.
  • What’s the slant? The data breaches involving Cambridge Analytica have hurt the company, and it’s trying to sweep them under the rug with excessive lobbying.
  • What’s the missing data? How much similar companies have spent on lobbying, as well as contextual information on Cambridge Analytica.
  • How does the missing data support the slant? In isolation, it seems Facebook is in trouble and trying to hide it. But when you consider the rest of the information, the company’s lobbying efforts seem standard.

Article 4: Prejudice: James Comey Admits FBI Didn’t Believe Hillary Could Be Prosecuted When it Launched Email Probe

 This article portrays Comey as prejudiced in the Hillary Clinton investigation. To be able to establish that, we’d first need to understand what basic protocols or standards of due process Comey adhered to (or didn’t) in the course of the investigation, which Breitbart didn’t provide. In other words, there’s no data to back up the outlet’s implication of wrongdoing on Comey’s part. Did he violate due process? Did the way he handled the case differ from precedents?

Breitbart also compared Comey’s case on Clinton to General David Petraeus’:

Comey’s justification for pre-judging the Clinton email case was to compare her to General David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to one charge of mishandling classified information after he was accused of providing classified material to his official biographer while he served as CIA director.

But the outlet included almost no information on Petraeus’ case, so readers would need to take Breitbart’s word for it that it’s an apples-to-apples comparison to Clinton’s.

RECAP:

  • What’s the story? Comey wrote in his memoir that he didn’t think Clinton could be prosecuted.
  • What’s the slant? Comey was biased in his investigation of Clinton.
  • What’s the missing data? Any data indicating he stuck to and/or violated due process. Also, contextual information on Petraeus’ case to compare against Clinton’s.
  • How does the missing data support the slant? Without data to back up the claims of bias, readers may just take Breitbart’s word for it.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media