Of all the different ways media outlets distort information, slant can be the most difficult to detect. We examined some of the coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Trump administration’s travel ban, and found some forms of slant were more obvious than others. This analysis shows three different slant techniques, with tips on how you can apply them to future news coverage and other information.
Most apparent: Spin
Language that’s dramatic, subjective or vague (also known as “spin”) isn’t slant per se, but it often reveals and furthers the slant. Notice the impression each of these excerpts creates:
[President Trump’s travel ban is] one of the hardest-fought battles of this term. (Fox News)
[The decision] ends 15 months of legal battles … (The New York Times)
Fox’s language is subjective and dramatic. Especially when read in context, it may suggest the administration’s efforts to implement the travel ban weren’t only good, but possibly heroic (that’s the slant). The Times’ sentence, by comparison, gives readers an objective understanding of the lawsuits’ duration.
A more obvious example can be found in the way the outlets embellished the dissenting opinion read by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The Times, for instance, described it as a “passionate and searing dissent,” adding that she “lashed out” at Trump in her comments.
In this case, the spin is subjective and dramatic, and that kind of language can appeal to readers’ emotions, rather than to their critical judgement. Presenting the information this way is different from providing the unbiased facts so readers can come to their own conclusions, and not prematurely side with Sotomayor’s position on the basis of sensational descriptions. Fox, on the other hand, reported it as “Sotomayor … wrote a dissent.”
This last example more accurately reflects how these two outlets fared in The Knife’s rating system. The Times’ article was the most spun of the four at 70 percent. Fox’s article was the least spun, with a 50 percent rating.
Slant lookout tip: Spot the spin and see how it shapes your impressions.
Somewhat apparent: Juxtaposition
The Times introduced another immigration issue that isn’t directly related to Tuesday’s decision, and it did so in its lead sentence:
The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld President Trump’s ban on travel from several mostly-Muslim nations, delivering a robust endorsement of Mr. Trump’s power to control the flow of immigration into America at a time of political upheaval about the treatment of migrants at the Mexican border.
This sentence could imply the court’s decision sets up a scenario for broadening the president’s powers in the future, but that may not be the case. The court found the travel ban fell within the scope of his and previous presidents’ authority. The outlet later wrote:
The vindication came even as Mr. Trump is reeling from weeks of controversy over his decision to impose “zero tolerance” at America’s southern border, leading to politically searing images of children being separated from their parents as families cross into the United States without proper documentation.
The U.S.’ treatment of migrants at its southern border has dominated the news for a few weeks, and it’s an important issue to report. That said, it isn’t directly related to the travel ban, and the Times’ putting the two issues side by side may bring unnecessary drama to the news of the Supreme Court ruling. And, coupled with the notion that Trump may be overstepping his bounds, the juxtaposition could suggest he may do the same on the southern border.
Slant lookout tip: Look for two or more pieces of information that are juxtaposed in the same sentence of paragraph, that aren’t directly related. Consider whether the information presented directly relates to the main news event.
Least apparent: Quotes and placement
The quotes an article includes and where they’re positioned in an article can quickly shape the way readers interpret a story. NBC News’ and The Daily Caller’s articles provide a useful comparison in this regard. Here are NBC’s headline and subhead.
Supreme Court upholds Trump travel ban, president claims vindication from ‘hysterical’ critics
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent that the ruling ignores the “pain and suffering the (ban) inflicts upon countless families and individuals, many of whom are United States citizens."
Before one reads the court’s arguments for the decision, NBC brings readers’ attention to the dissent. This gives disproportionate weight to the four justices that voted against the travel ban, compared to the majority that voted for it. The outlet also included spun quotes from the ACLU and a lawyer who represented challengers to the travel ban, all opposing the court’s decision.
The Daily Caller’s headline and lead weren’t as spun as NBC’s, and they didn’t mention Sotomayor’s dissent:
Supremes deal victory for Trump, uphold travel ban
A five-justice majority of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in full the latest iteration of President Donald Trump’s travel sanctions Tuesday.
Saying the justices “dealt” Trump a “victory” slants the story in his favor. (A more data-based way of delivering the information would be to say the court upheld the travel ban.) Also, Daily Caller readers don’t get to the dissent until more than halfway through the article (26 statements later, to be precise). The first half gives the court’s reasoning and Trump’s statements, and positioning the dissent that far down could minimize its importance. The outlet only included one quote that didn’t support the decision, and that was from Sotomayor.
This last slant mechanism can be harder to detect, because most readers take in the order and flow of information as a first impression without question. To identify the quotes and placement takes a little more effort, and perhaps comparison with other news sources, yet the results can be quite educational.
Slant lookout tip: Look for quotes and where they’re placed in an article. To go the extra mile, read a second news outlet’s report and compare.
Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media