The irony of the Sinclair message and how the media covered it

Dozens of news anchors reciting the same message in unison may seem like a page out of a dystopian novel. But last weekend, a video montage by the website Deadspin showed dozens of local news outlets delivering a scripted message from their parent company, Sinclair Broadcast Group. The message warned viewers against media bias and “fake news.” Later, media outlets drew parallels between the message and President Trump’s opinions on the matter. Trump responded on Twitter by coming to the defense of Sinclair and criticizing outlets like CNN and NBC.

The Knife analyzed the message itself and four news outlets that covered it.

Bias 1: Sinclair’s scripted message

At first glance, the scripted message may seem constructive: it seems to inform news consumers about media bias and urges them to contact stations if they think coverage is “unfair.” Here’s an excerpt:

But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories... stories that just aren't true, without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’...This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.

However, a deeper look reveals several areas of distortion:

  • Spin: The terms marked above indicate spin — dramatic, vague or subjective language that often supports slant. In this case, spin terms like “troubling,” “alarming” and “extremely dangerous” may also encourage fear.

  • Imprecision and missing data: The message makes generalizations without specific examples. Which media outlets publish fake stories? What are the fake stories? And which members of the media “use their platforms to push their own personal bias”? By not being specific, it opens the door to implication.

  • Implication: Some of the terminology in Sinclair’s “must-run” message is similar to President Trump’s often-repeated criticisms of the media, and Trump directs this criticism at outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and others. Given this context, there may be an implication that the biased journalists the message is referring to are the ones Trump tweets about.

It’s also important to consider that Sinclair’s senior vice president of news reportedly directed dozens of stations to broadcast the message. A mandatory scripted message may not allow for alternate perspectives to be heard.

Add to this the fact that Trump defended Sinclair in tweets on Monday and Tuesday. For example, he wrote:

So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased. Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.

The irony, then, is that while the message cautions viewers about biased and false news, it may not be objective in itself.

Bias 2: The media’s coverage of the message

Media outlets covering the scripted message could have pointed out its distortions in an objective way. But instead, they largely reported on them with their own distortion.

For example, NBC News wrote:

The segments drew the ire of media journalists and watchdogs, many of whom were already closely watching Sinclair for its ties to President Donald Trump and its ambitions to expand its already-sizable U.S. audience.

There’s spin in the sentence. Phrases such as “drew the ire” dramatize the criticism of the scripted message. Also, the juxtaposition of the different elements in the sentence may imply there’s a relationship between the scripted segments and Sinclair’s “ties” to Trump and its efforts to expand.

The main slant in NBC, The New York Times and AP was that Sinclair’s message and overall coverage is concerning because it has a conservative and pro-Trump bias. Some outlets give anecdotal evidence, such as pointing out that a former Trump adviser is a commentator on its stations, and that Sinclair produced a “must-run” segment with a former White House aide. These examples are useful to know and could be part of a general programming strategy, but it’s a hasty generalization to make broad assumptions from this limited data.

For instance, NBC’s subheadline states that the promo was “catching heat over a perceived politically tinged bias.” First, “politically tinged” is a vague term and NBC doesn’t define it. Also, the outlet doesn’t explain its reasoning and say what exactly makes the promo “politically tinged.” It says Sinclair stations have “conservative commentators” and mentions a program in 2004 that criticized John Kerry’s military record. That could indicate a conservative leaning, but it doesn’t necessarily prove that the scripted message itself was “politically tinged.”

There’s other missing information, too. The outlets suggest the Trump administration may be helping Sinclair’s efforts to buy Tribune media. Here are some examples:

Sinclair has been accused of using connections in the Trump administration to ease regulations on media consolidation. In an effort to expand its reach, the company is seeking approval from the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission for its $3.9 billion deal to buy Tribune Media. (The New York Times)

The company has been accused of wielding influence within the Trump administration to get federal regulations eased… (NBC)

The Tribune deal was announced after new FCC regulations went through in April 2017 in a 3-2 Republican-majority vote. Democrats and critics on the left have voiced outrage, saying it shows the Trump administration playing favorites to get more conservative-oriented voices on local news stations. (NBC)

Again, the accusations could be true, but the outlets are vague as to what the accusations are and don’t give thorough evidence to support them. For example, who specifically is making the accusations? What connections is the Times saying Sinclair allegedly used, and how? Is NBC suggesting the administration influenced the FCC vote, and if so, how?

Finally, the coverage may be myopic and doesn’t include additional information and perspectives. For instance, it may be true that Sinclair uses “its stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda,” as the New York Times writes, citing “critics.” But the newspaper doesn’t specify what makes the agenda “right-leaning.” How does it cover specific issues, for example, and in what way is the coverage “right-leaning”? The Times also doesn’t explore the political leaning of other news outlets, which would give readers a more comprehensive understanding of how Sinclair relates to the overall media landscape.

Fox News’ coverage had a different perspective, emphasizing Trump’s criticism of CNN and NBC. But it also used dramatic spin and was biased — it didn’t provide perspectives other than Trump’s.

The irony of the media coverage of the Sinclair message, then, is similar to irony in the message itself. News outlets are examining the perceived bias of Sinclair, but doing it with their own biases rather than with objective, balanced coverage.

What’s missing

There’s an important missing piece in both Sinclair’s message and the media coverage:  they’re concerned with media bias but no one is defining what that is and exploring how to effectively counter it. Media bias is the effect of people’s own biases — namely, those of the reporters, editors, publishers and producers who create the news. It’s a prejudice, a tendency to favor certain points of view and neglect others.

In order to counter it, journalists can commit to separating data from opinion and proactively seeking out as many perspectives as possible. It’s a commitment to living and working by these standards. This can be a challenging task, especially when one feels invested in his or her opinions and perspectives. It’s also challenging when alternative perspectives go against a prevailing viewpoint in a newsroom or in society — exploring them can be met with great adversity. Some journalists may not know how to effectively do this; others may know how, but may not want to make the sacrifice.

Yet if journalists don’t meet these standards, they’ll likely reinforce bias even when they’re purportedly trying to correct it, as Sinclair’s message and the media coverage did in this story. Without better understanding what bias is and committing to truly upholding objective standards, the media and others are destined to perpetuate it.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media