The Charlottesville resolution and the role of media in violence
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The Charlottesville resolution and the role of media in violence

September 14, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Congress adopts resolution condemning Charlottesville violence

On Wednesday, U.S. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Donald Trump “looks forward” to signing resolution S.J.Res.49, which was adopted by Congress and condemns the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12. The legislation was introduced as a joint resolution and was unanimously passed by the Senate on Monday and the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The resolution recognizes those killed and injured during the protests and calls the death of Heather Heyer a “domestic terror attack.” It condemns “white nationalists, white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups,” and asks the president and his cabinet “to use all available resources to address the threats posed by [these] groups.”

The resolution also requests that Attorney General Jeff Sessions investigate “all acts of violence, intimidation and domestic terrorism” by the aforementioned groups, and that he “improve the reporting of hate crimes” to the FBI.

Simple or concurrent resolutions do not require a presidential signature; however, a joint resolution is sent to the president for signature. The House version was introduced by Representatives Tom Garrett (R-Va.) and Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). The Senate version was introduced by Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-Va.). The legislation passed both chambers unanimously and without debate.

Distortion Highlights

  • The media coverage highlighted the part of the resolution that calls for Trump to denounce white supremacist groups.
  • Outlets downplayed other aspects of the bill, such as the practical steps it proposes to reduce violence.
  • The reporting implies that a condemnation by Trump is a determining factor in reducing such violence. We explore that assumption below.

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The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Rattled

    Trump alienated fellow Republicans, corporate leaders and U.S. allies and rattled markets last month with comments about the violence in Charlottesville, where white nationalists and neo-Nazis clashed with anti-racism activists on Aug. 12. (Reuters)

  • Bemoaned

    Trump was criticised for his response to the violence and the rally, in which he asserted there were good people on “both sides” and bemoaned efforts to remove Confederate monuments as an attack on American “history and culture”. (Al Jazeera)

  • Dramatic

    Since Trump’s election, rights groups and monitors have documented a dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes in the US. (Al Jazeera)

  • Pushing

    Congress passed the bipartisan joint resolution condemning the Charlottesville violence — as well as “white nationalists, white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups”– earlier this week, pushing Trump to sign the resolution explicitly condemning the racist gathering. (CNN)

  • Unrest

    White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump “looks forward” to signing the resolution, which comes weeks after Trump faced criticism from both sides of the political aisle for condemning “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” following the unrest in Virginia, equating the actions of white supremacists with those protesting them. (CNN)

    Legislators from Virginia said Congress spoke with “a unified voice” to unequivocally condemn the unrest in which Heyer was killed. (Al Jazeera)

  • Alienated

    Trump alienated fellow Republicans, corporate leaders and U.S. allies and rattled markets last month with comments about the violence in Charlottesville, where white nationalists and neo-Nazis clashed with anti-racism activists on Aug. 12. (Reuters)

The sources we analyzed on Congress’ joint resolution on the violence in Charlottesville accurately reported the contents of the bill. However, they gave more weight to the part of the bill that calls for Trump’s condemnation of white supremacists than they did to the practical steps the bill proposes to reduce violence (e.g. improving reporting of hate crimes and conducting thorough investigations of them). The emphasis may suggest that whether Trump denounces these groups or not is of higher import.

In some outlets, condemnation became the focal point. For example, Al Jazeera’s headline said, “Congress challenges Trump to address white supremacy.” Reuters emphasized this in its headline as well, and dedicated its lead paragraph to it:

The U.S. Congress passed a resolution late on Tuesday calling on President Donald Trump to condemn hate groups after Trump was criticized for his response to the violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a month ago.

Why the media reported on this portion of the bill is understandable. Lawmakers from both major parties, business leaders and foreign heads of state criticized Trump’s remarks last month, saying his comment that there was “blame on both sides” did not sufficiently denounce the white supremacist groups that were in Charlottesville. If Congress passes a resolution calling for him to denounce those groups, that’s important to know.

There’s also value in the public knowing the president’s position on the events, and a statement could comfort those who were directly affected by them. Given Trump’s position and authority, a public denouncement could also influence the decisions of people who consider enacting violence in the future.

That said, it wouldn’t directly stop people from choosing hateful acts. As we said in a recent article, condemnation cannot cause less hate and violence.

Yet this is an underlying assumption in these articles, and in some of the sources they cite. Considering the criticism Trump received after not condemning the groups in Charlottesville (which all the articles mention), and that the bill is intended to address the type of violence that occurred, when you put the two together, it could suggest that a condemnation now may address the problem. The articles support the assumption through the prominence they give to the subject both in positioning and amount of coverage, and also through the use of vague, dramatic language to describe it.

For instance, The Washington Post wrote that the bill “will be presented to Trump for his signature in an effort by lawmakers to secure a more forceful denunciation of racist extremism from the president.” The phrase “more forceful denunciation” isn’t precise and implies Trump didn’t condemn the groups forcefully enough when he spoke after the incident. Had he done so, would we be closer to solving the problem?

Al Jazeera offers another example, writing that human rights experts at the U.N. “called on the US and its leadership to ‘unequivocally and unconditionally’ condemn racist speech and crimes, warning that a failure to do so could fuel further violent incidents.” This states that not condemning violent acts could incite more of them, which may imply that denouncing can prevent them. This doesn’t follow.

As noted above, there may indeed be benefits from Trump making this type of public statement, but to confuse this with an assumption that it can solve hate and violence could perpetuate the problem. It may suggest that whether this type of violence continues depends on the president’s words or his government’s actions. Ultimately, all Americans share responsibility for the violence in our communities.

In our society, we often blame specific individuals or groups for the existence of hate and violence, without considering how everyone participates. This perspective can become compounded and harder to see when it’s promoted in the media, or when news outlets don’t explore other points of view. In this case, for the outlets to make Trump’s condemnation the main focus of the coverage could distract us from examining others’ responsibility in the matter, as well as our own.

Humanity has been trying to solve the problem of violence for millennia. If we are to build a country where “there is no place for hate and violence,” as Rep. Gerry Connolly put it, it may be helpful to examine the problem through critical thinking and with a willingness to look at our own responsibility—and hold the media to this standard, too. Without this, we may miss exploring new ways of addressing the issue.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 32% Spun

  • 50% Spun

  • 63% Spun

  • 75% Spun

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

The resolution calls on the Trump administration to improve data collection on hate crimes. (The Washington Post, Al Jazeera)


The above information is missing from CNN and Reuters. Knowing that Congress has called on the Trump administration to improve data collection on such crimes can help elucidate the actions Congress wants the administration to take going forward.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) estimates that a “hate crime” occurs in the U.S. every 90 minutes. Citing the 2015 FBI Hate Crimes Statistics report, the ADL also notes that at least 85 police agencies in cities with populations over 100,000 either didn’t provide data to the FBI or reported that they had zero “hate crimes.” The ADL notes that better data collection can help inform policy.

A bill currently in Congress called the “No Hate Act” claims that a complete understanding of the national issues associated with “hate crimes” is “hindered by incomplete data from federal, state, and local jurisdictions.” The bill aims to provide incentives for data collection.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Assumes the resolution equals an assault on free speech.

Doesn’t say what actually happened, while also demeaning Congress.

This headline is uninformative, disparaging and possibly misleading. It implies there’s little to no free speech in Europe, and that Congress is forcing Trump to implement similar restrictions in the U.S. The resolution deals with hate crimes and doesn’t include new legislation pertaining to free speech.

Implies Trump’s meeting with Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina is connected, or relevant, to his “eagerness” to sign this resolution.

Maybe the two events were connected, but this wasn’t reflected in the articles we analyzed, and the Daily Mail doesn’t explain it either. How could the implication influence your view of Trump’s supposed “eagerness”?

Dramatizes what the resolution calls for.

Saying the resolution “challenges” Trump is dramatic opinion, and suggests a conflict where there might be none. The White House has said Trump “looks forward” to signing it — not much challenge there.

Factual, plain and simple.

This headline sticks to the facts, providing the news without opinion or speculation about Trump’s possible response to the resolution.