Compounding distortions in the coverage of the calls to abolish ICE

When news outlets sensationalize already sensationalized information, it makes it harder to discern fact from fiction in reporting. Such a pattern is often observed when the statements public officials make are spun or otherwise distorted, and then news outlets add further distortions. A case in point: the coverage of the recent calls for (and responses to) the dismantling of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Here’s a synopsis of what happened and how the distortions compounded (the subjective, vague or dramatic language is marked in each example):

1. Democrats make statements: Some Democrats, groups and individuals called for ICE to be abolished or overhauled, among them Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. For instance, Warren wrote on Facebook:

The President’s deeply immoral actions have made it obvious that we need to rebuild our immigration system from top to bottom, starting by replacing ICE with something that reflects our values.

2. Trump responds: Trump sent tweets supporting ICE and suggesting Democrats are wrong to call for changes to the agency. Here’s one of the tweets; others can be found here, here and here.

When we have an “infestation” of MS-13 GANGS in certain parts of our country, who do we send to get them out? ICE! They are tougher and smarter than these rough criminal elelments (sic) that bad immigration laws allow into our country. Dems do not appreciate the great job they do! Nov.”

3. The White House responds: The White House then sent tweets to Warren and Harris asking them why they allegedly “support” criminals and MS-13 (it turns out neither of them has publicly expressed such support). Here’s one of the tweets:

@SenWarren, why are you supporting criminals moving weapons, drugs, and victims across our nation’s borders? You must not know what ICE really does. Here is a link to help you out:

4. The press reports: Media outlets covered the exchanges, some slanting the coverage to favor Democrats, others to favor Trump and the White House. (More on this below.)

The Knife’s analyses don’t typically focus on sources’ statements, but rather the media’s reporting of them. However, a few things are worth noting here to understand the levels of distortion at play.

First, some Democrats’ calls to abolish the agency only present one point of view, ignoring or minimizing services ICE provides that are beneficial to the country. The four articles The Knife analyzed didn’t point this out.

Second, Trump’s and the White House’s implications that the criticisms of the agency are equivalent to supporting criminals or gangs seem to misrepresent what these Democrats have said. In the case of Warren and Harris, for instance, neither of them have publicly expressed support for such groups, according to an earlier New York Times article. The articles included in this analysis didn’t point this out.

Finally, there’s the fact that the White House used its social media account to misrepresent the senators’ views in a way that could damage public perception of their positions and character. The same Times article referenced above had this to say about the tweets (the spin is marked here too):

Although Mr. Trump often attacks political rivals from his personal Twitter account, it is rare for a government entity to directly criticize a sitting member of Congress … It was not clear whether the White House messages violated any ethics rules, but they did break with the practice of past administrations of refraining from posting overtly partisan content singling out public figures on official accounts.

This perspective might be useful to consider, and it wasn’t included in the articles analyzed. Now to the media’s coverage.

Biased against Democrats and ICE critics

Fox News’ and Breitbart’s coverage suggested Trump and the White House were right to respond to ICE critics as they did. Breitbart’s slant was more pronounced, earning the outlet the lowest Knife integrity rating of the four with 39 percent (where 100 is objective coverage). Consider its lead sentence:

President Donald Trump slammed Democrats on Tuesday for not appreciating ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) work to get an “infestation” of MS-13 gang members out of America.

This statement assumes there is an “infestation” of MS-13 gang members. What exactly constitutes an “infestation” in this regard? Neither Trump nor Breitbart defined it. Also, the outlet didn’t include data about the number of MS-13 members in the U.S. and what percentage they constitute of all violent gangs in the country, which would contextualize the “infestation” claim. CNN did include this information, noting there are an estimated 10,000 members in the U.S. out of 30,000 worldwide, according to the Justice Department, and that “MS-13 remains a small fraction of the overall gang problem in the U.S., according to FBI statistics.”

If readers accept Breitbart’s statement as fact, they could more easily dismiss Democrats’ concerns about ICE and see these lawmakers themselves as the problem.

The outlet wrote in its closing paragraph:

Much of the language at the Saturday protests rang out with a spirit of inducing fear. Leftist comparisons between Republicans or the Trump administration and events of the Holocaust are not new but were abounding at Saturday’s open borders protest in Washington, DC. The comparison raised images of the horrors of the Holocaust in attempts to vilify Republican (sic) and the Trump administration.

There are news reports that some protesters drew parallels between the Trump administration’s immigration policies and the Holocaust — Breitbart published a separate article on the topic. While it may be useful to communicate that such parallels were drawn, Breitbart’s portrayal may disproportionately weigh their prominence in the protests and could dissuade readers from considering protesters’ concerns.

Ironically, Trump’s use of the term “infestation,” which is vague and dramatic, and Breitbart’s lack of clarification of what that means and how many MS-13 members are in the country can also induce fear, just as Breitbart claims Democrats are doing.

Biased against Trump and the White House

Politico’s and CNN’s articles suggested Democrats and those who are calling for changes to ICE are correct. CNN’s article earned the second lowest integrity rating of 45 percent (which tied with Fox’s rating; Politico received the highest rating of the four at 50 percent integrity). Here are CNN’s headline and lead:

Trump re-ups ‘infestation’ rhetoric in immigration debate

President Donald Trump on Tuesday again invoked the imagery of undocumented immigrants as sub-human, this time to warn against the influx of gang members into the US.

The outlet later added:

Last month, Trump used similar language evoking images of pests, not human beings, in describing migrants approaching the US border.

It’s questionable for the chief executive to refer to people as “pests” and “infestations.” Part of the media’s responsibility is to act as an accountability measure to the government, so making readers aware of Trump’s use of dramatic and disparaging language is useful. However, CNN’s coverage emphasized Trump’s spin, and the outlet did so by adding spin of its own.

There are two limitations with CNN’s report. First, the emphasis on Trump’s spin may distract readers from the issues at hand. Second, the spin-against-spin muddies the water, so to speak. In other words, it may be a better practice to use neutral, objective terms to expose sensational language — the contrast itself can be quite effective.


As noted above, neither pair of articles objectively represented what was already a distorted exchange. This ultimately disempowers readers in terms of understanding the issues at hand, and it may also inspire them to take sides prematurely or on the basis of emotion, rather than on critical evaluation and reasoning.

In its pursuit of truth, the media could act as an arbiter between the people and its government. To do so, it cannot take sides (a.k.a. slant), and it cannot use the same distortion techniques they use (a.k.a. spin, misleading information, logical fallacies, etc.). In this regard, objective reporting can better inform and serve not only the people, but also the government.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media