Recipe for drama: How the media sensationalized Trump’s comments
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Recipe for drama: How the media sensationalized Trump’s comments

February 8, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump says if immigration legislation doesn’t change ‘let’s have a shutdown’

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said at a White House roundtable, “if we don’t change [the immigration legislation], let’s have a shutdown.” The focus of the roundtable was on immigration and the crime group known as MS-13.

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • First, Trump made sensational comments about supporting a government shutdown. Then, the media made them more sensational.
  • How? News outlets cherry-picked the most dramatic things he said without giving much context, and added opinion and bias. They also suggested he was impeding a budget deal.
  • The result? Probably a more alarmed readership. Here’s a guide to how the media did it.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Poured cold water on that idea

    While the president in the past has floated the possibility of extending the March 5 deadline to end the program for young immigrants, White House chief of staff John Kelly on Tuesday poured cold water on that idea. (The Hill)

  • Saber rattling

    Trump’s saber rattling came as lawmakers are rushing to meet a Thursday deadline to fund the government. (The Hill)

  • Keep the lights on

    A short-term government funding bill — which ended a three-day shutdown in January — will expire Thursday, and questions remain regarding whether Congress will be able to pass a fifth stop-gap funding bill to keep the lights on. (NBC News)

  • Balked

    Democrats and some Republicans have objected to making significant changes to the U.S. visa system, while conservative GOP lawmakers have balked at a citizenship path. (The Hill)

  • Flatly rejected

    Moments later, when told of Trump’s latest remarks, Schumer flatly rejected the president’s latest threat. (NBC News)

  • Parade of remarks

    Trump’s statement followed a parade of remarks from state, local and federal law enforcement officials about violence propagated by MS-13, which was founded in Los Angeles by refugees from El Salvador. (Politico)

  • Undercutting

    President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he supports a government shutdown if Democrats won’t agree to tighten immigration laws, undercutting ongoing bipartisan negotiations on Capitol Hill. (CNN)

  • Cheered

    President Donald Trump cheered on the idea of another government shutdown on Tuesday, telling lawmakers at a White House roundtable that he would “love” to see one if it helped get a tough immigration deal through Congress. (NBC News)

  • Cracked down on

    “We’ll do a shutdown, and it’s worth it for our country,” Trump said at a law enforcement roundtable that focused on immigration issues and on the MS-13 gang, which the Trump White House has cracked down on. (NBC News)

On Tuesday, President Trump said he’d support a government shutdown if there weren’t changes to immigration law (read our Raw Data here). The comments themselves were dramatic and unconventional, and important for the public to know. But the media made them even more sensational.  

News outlets cherry-picked the most sensational things he said without giving much context, and then added opinion and biased information that may have left readers misinformed about the situation. They also suggested Trump was impeding the negotiations. The result? Probably a more alarmed readership.

Fast forward to Wednesday, when bipartisan Senate leaders announced they had reached a two-year budget plan. While that plan still needs to be approved by the Senate and House, it moves Congress closer to preventing a shutdown. In hindsight, the added drama in the coverage of Trump’s Tuesday comments seems unnecessary and possibly misleading. Extra drama usually is.

Here’s a guide to how the media made Trump’s comments more sensational:

1. Cherry-picking quotes

In a meeting about MS-13 gang violence, Trump said more than 1,900 words (yes, we counted) — some more pertinent than others to the situation in Congress. The articles we analyzed cited between 86 and 138 of the words he said (between 4.4 and 7.2 percent).  While media can’t repeat everything that Trump said, and some is less relevant to what’s going on in Congress, the coverage focused primarily on his most sensational comments, sometimes in a misleading way.

Let’s look at CNN’s headline:

Trump: ‘I’d love to see a shutdown’ over immigration

Compare that to Politico’s:

Trump calls for shutdown if Congress doesn’t pass border-security measures

CNN mischaracterizes what Trump said. In context, he said that if they can’t reach an agreement on certain immigration issues (as Politico says), he’d “love to see a shutdown” over it. He didn’t say he’d love to see a shutdown over immigration in general.

Outlets also left out other things Trump said in the meeting, which was about gang violence. Before making the comment about the shutdown, Trump said: “these incredible professionals at the table cannot do their job unless we change, really, the legislation. … Frankly — I’ll go a step further — if we don’t change the legislation, if we don’t rid of these loopholes where killers are allowed to come into our country and continue to kill — gang members” then he’d support a shutdown.

Without this context, it might seem more like Trump is arbitrarily suggesting he’d “love to see a shutdown,” rather than for a specific purpose. This part of Trump’s statements is fully omitted from two of the articles we analyzed.

Why does this matter? In addition to potentially mischaracterizing what Trump said, headlines like CNN’s are essentially clickbait.

2. Interpreting what he said with opinion

Trump said what he said and people can evaluate its significance. But media does it for us — through its own filter. For instance, NBC News says Trump “cheered on the idea of another government shutdown,” and Politico calls it the “president’s insistence on a shutdown.” As with CNN’s headline above, these statements might mischaracterize what Trump said. It sounds as if he wants a shutdown for the sake of a shutdown.

3. Implying he impeded progress

The outlets contrast Trump’s statement with descriptions of the progress made in negotiations so far, suggesting the president is undermining it. For instance, CNN’s lead sentence concludes that his comments “[undercut] ongoing bipartisan negotiations on Capitol Hill.”

Some outlets are less direct, using juxtaposition to imply Trump’s comments are impeding progress. For instance, NBC says the statement “came amid growing efforts by both chambers of Congress to reach a deal.” It says that “just moments before” the comment, “party leaders in the chamber had expressed optimism” that they’d reach a deal.

4. Not including the specifics

It’s difficult to evaluate the potential effect of Trump’s comments on the budget negotiations or the potential shutdown because the outlets don’t give much background information about these things. What do the different parties want? What’s needed to prevent a shutdown? How does it relate to immigration? There’s a lack of context, and this doesn’t encourage critical evaluation of the issues.

Some might say that Trump’s original comment is where the sensationalism started, and that it may well have impeded negotiations. Perhaps, but if the media amplifies politicians’ most dramatic comments, it may encourage them to keep making such remarks. What if the media prioritized comments that exemplified critical thought and civil discourse instead? Might be a different world.

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

  • 48% Spun

  • 50% Spun

  • 53% Spun

  • 61% Spun


The media gave many subjective interpretations of Trump’s comments on a potential shutdown. Let’s examine one outlet as an example. Here are three ways The Hill presented its own opinions as fact.

The Hill

“His tough talk stands in stark contrast to optimism on Capitol Hill about the chances of averting a shutdown.”

Trump made comments about a government shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said they were close to a budget deal.

The Hill

“Trump cut off the Virginia lawmaker and doubled down on his willingness to stage a shutdown.”

Trump made the above comment. A Virginia lawmaker said she didn’t agree. Trump later repeated he’d support a shutdown if there was no agreement on immigration law.

The Hill

“Trump’s saber rattling came as lawmakers are rushing to meet a Thursday deadline to fund the government.”

Trump made the above comment. Lawmakers have a Thursday deadline to fund the government.

The Numbers

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

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