The questions for Trump: More bias in the Mueller coverage

When new developments break in the Mueller investigation, they quickly become top stories on most news sites. One could attribute that to the nature of the case, but the media’s biased reporting may also have something to do with keeping readers’ interest piqued. The coverage this week about the leaked questions that Mueller purportedly intended to ask President Trump is no different: it’s biased.

The four outlets were consistent with previous biases while reporting on the investigation. Here’s a look at how each one worked in their specific point of view.

Questioning the investigation

Fox News’ angle on the leak was that Mueller’s investigation at best lacks professionalism, or at worst is invalid and seeks to damage Trump. Consider the article’s headline, lead and a quote Fox chose to include.

Mueller's questions for Trump leaked to NYT, in latest unexplained disclosure from Russia probe

A lengthy list of questions for President Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller was leaked to The New York Times, marking the latest in a string of apparently deliberate disclosures relating to the ongoing probe into Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election.

Leaks in the Mueller probe have been suspected for several months, leading The New York Post to ask last year if Mueller is “playing politics with his prosecutions.”

The spin opens up questions about the legitimacy of the investigation, given the leak. And the quote more or less spells out a conclusion one could surmise, but it’s only one of many perspectives. That’s how bias works: it promotes one point of view over others. Might Mueller be following due process, and the leak have nothing to do with him or his team?

Implications of guilt

The New York Times used key spin terms that may suggest Trump and his campaign are guilty of wrongdoing. Here are two examples (the spin is marked).

In one of the more tantalizing inquiries, Mr. Mueller asks what Mr. Trump knew about campaign aides, including the former chairman Paul Manafort, seeking assistance from Moscow …

Describing Mueller’s questions as “tantalizing” is subjective and dramatic, implying the questions tease people who want to know the answers. The juxtaposition could suggest campaign aides did in fact seek assistance from Moscow, when this has not been confirmed.

Through his questions, Mr. Mueller also tries to tease out Mr. Trump’s views on law enforcement officials and whether he sees them as independent investigators or people who should loyally protect him.

Same pattern here: “tease out” alludes to “pulling” information, perhaps from someone who doesn’t want to provide it. And the notion of “loyal protection” reinforces allegations that Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey for his “loyalty.” The Times could have simply stated the relevant questions.

The Washington Post had similar distortions, as did BBC. Here’s BBC’s lead, followed by another statement further down the article.

A list that reports to be Robert Mueller's proposed questions for Donald Trump is like a walking tour of all the Russia-related controversies surrounding the Trump campaign and the early days of his presidency.

Despite Mr Trump's insistence, there appears to be plenty of interest in possible collusion.

First, BBC introduces the idea of “controversies,” which is sensational. Then it seems to suggest Trump’s denial of wrongdoing may be outweighed by the “plenty of interest” in alleged collusion.

Notice how the spin in most cases serves the notion that there was collusion, or that at the very least Trump and his campaign may have something to hide. Again, none of the implications are substantiated with data.

An omission that may be misleading

Three of the four outlets The Knife analyzed didn’t clarify that there’s no confirmation at this point that the special counsel will ask Trump those questions, or that such an interview is guaranteed. The fourth, Fox News, wrote:

Although Mueller's team has indicated to Trump's lawyers that he's not considered a target, investigators remain interested in whether the president's actions constitute obstruction of justice and want to interview him about several episodes in office. The lawyers want to resolve the investigation as quickly as possible, but there's no agreement on how to do that.

That last statement clarifies that the leak doesn’t mean Mueller will ask those questions, and it informs readers that as of Wednesday, no plan for an interview with Trump had been announced. Compare that to BBC’s closing statement, which assumes Mueller will ask Trump those questions.

The special counsel has plenty of questions. The biggest one right now, however, is how - or if Mr Trump answers any of them.

Publishing the list of questions without clarifying whether there’ll be an interview can mislead readers to think there will be one. That may or may not have already been decided, and maybe it’s just not public yet, but news outlets could be clear about that so readers understand the process. Especially the Times, which broke the story and whose coverage most other outlets followed.


Both biases — implying Trump has something to hide, or that Mueller’s investigation is without merit — can limit readers’ understanding of the investigation by leading them to premature conclusions that aren’t backed by data. Objective reporting could simply list the facts of the story, without suggesting Mueller’s intent, what could happen, or what investigators may have meant by certain questions. Then news outlets could direct readers to the questions, so they can come to their own conclusions.

This is the pattern of media bias The Knife continues to observe in the reporting of Mueller’s investigation. With this in mind, can you spot the same biases in the next round of coverage?

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media