Responses to Las Vegas: The effects of media bias on critical thinking
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Responses to Las Vegas: The effects of media bias on critical thinking

October 3, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

White House press secretary, politicians speak about Las Vegas shooting

On Monday at the daily briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke about Sunday night’s shooting in Las Vegas, in which 58 people were killed and over 500 injured by a single shooter, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock. Sanders said there was an ongoing investigation and that Paddock’s motive had not been determined. She said President Donald Trump would visit Las Vegas on Wednesday.

In response to a question from the press regarding the possible pursuit of “tighter” gun control laws, Sanders said, “There’s a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country” and that “it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don’t fully know all the facts or what took place.”

Politicians respond

Trump spoke from the White House on Monday, offering his condolences to the families of victims and recognizing the law enforcement officers who responded to the shooting.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sent and published a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, saying Congress must pass the bipartisan King-Thompson legislation, which “expands the existing background check system to cover all commercial firearm sales, including those at gun shows, over the internet or in classified ads while providing reasonable exceptions for family and friend transfers.” Pelosi also asked Ryan to create a Select Committee on Gun Violence to examine “common sense” legislation in response to gun violence.

Hillary Clinton posted on Twitter, saying “The crowd fled at the sound of gunshots. Imagine the deaths if the shooter had a silencer which the NRA wants to make easier to get.” She also wrote, “Our grief isn’t enough. We can and must put politics aside, stand up to the NRA, and work together to try to stop this from happening again.”

Following the press briefing, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump led a moment of national silence on the White House’s South Lawn. Trump also ordered flags to half mast.

Distortion Highlights

  • Violence and gun control are complex issues, and we stand a better chance of solving them with more information, not less.
  • The media outlets we analyzed reported on politicians’ opinions on the matter, while inserting their own opinions into the mix.
  • Read how media bias can cloud the way we evaluate perspectives that could prove useful in solving these problems.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

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

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Hits

    Las Vegas shooting: White House hits Clinton, Dems for rush to gun control (Fox News)

  • Chided

    White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders on Monday chided congressional Democrats — and Hillary Clinton — for sounding the call for gun control within hours of the Las Vegas massacre. (Fox News)

  • Taking a shot

    When asked about Murphy’s comments in the briefing, Sanders said she agreed that Congress “should get up and do something,” taking a shot at the legislative branch for having “several months” of “doing very little.” (Fox News)

  • Frequently boasts

    Trump frequently boasts of his support of the 2nd Amendment, and did so just over a week ago at a rally in Huntsville, Ala. (Time)

  • Epidemic

    “The epidemic of gun violence in our country continues to challenge the conscience of our nation.” (Time)

    “Congress has a moral duty to address this horrific and heartbreaking epidemic.”  (Time)

  • Toughness

    After the deadly Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida in June 2016, Trump tweeted and campaigned on his Muslim ban, citing the need for toughness in the face of terrorism. (NBC News)

  • Thorny

    Sanders on Monday also tackled the thorny subject of North Korea, backing up the president after he tweeted over the weekend telling his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to stop wasting time negotiating with Kim Jong Un’s regime. (Fox News)

  • Ring hollow

    “As Members of Congress, our words of comfort to the families of the victims of the Las Vegas massacre will ring hollow unless we take long overdue action to ensure that no other family is forced to endure such an unimaginable tragedy.” (Time)

  • Too soon

    President Trump’s spokeswoman, echoing an argument often heard from pro-gun groups and their supporters, on Monday dismissed questions about policy responses to the Las Vegas massacre, saying it is too soon for such talk. (Los Angeles Times)

    White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday it was too soon to begin a debate on gun control, less than 24 hours after the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, although she reiterated President Trump’s support for the Second Amendment. (Time)

Hours after the initial coverage on the Las Vegas shooting, the media reported on politicians’ responses to the event. The outlets we analyzed biased this coverage, and one of the mechanisms used was juxtaposition — meaning, they brought two or more points together, contrasting or relating them in such a way that they created an implication that wasn’t necessarily true.

For instance, NBC News juxtaposes two events, saying that, during his candidacy, Trump was “quick to bring policy into the fold in the face of tragedy,” but in this case the White House “advocated pausing before diving into a policy debate.” What’s the implication here? That somehow Trump’s response Monday was inadequate or possibly hypocritical, because it doesn’t match the past example. This, of course, is opinion and not necessarily true, but it leaves a negative impression nonetheless.

In the articles analyzed by The Knife, the bias covered both ends of the political spectrum. In either case, it’s limiting. The information presented directs readers toward specific conclusions and inhibits objective evaluation. Here are two examples from the sources whose ratings were the most slanted.

What Trump and Sanders supposedly did wrong

The Los Angeles Times twice juxtaposed Sarah Sanders’ statements with arguments that are “often heard from pro-gun groups and their supporters.” (Bear in mind that, as spokeswoman, Sanders is representing President Trump and his administration.) It wrote that “Sanders also warned against creating laws that ‘won’t stop these things from happening’ again — another argument often made by the [NRA] and other advocates of unregulated guns, who often are on the defensive after mass shootings.”

The takeaway? Trump/Sanders automatically sided with the NRA, and their points are both insensitive and invalid.

What Clinton and the Democrats supposedly did wrong

Fox News wrote that Sanders “chided” congressional Democrats for their “swift calls” for gun control, and Hillary Clinton for questioning the NRA and how the use of silencers might have impacted the shooting. The outlet added, “[Clinton] soon took heat from critics who called her remarks ‘ignorant’ and ‘irrelevant’ — noting silencers in this case probably would not been (sic) dampened the sound very much.”

The takeaway? Clinton’s points are uninformed and invalid, and it was inappropriate for Democrats to have raised the issue of gun control when they did.

Do either Fox’s or the L.A. Times’ implications leave readers with the desire to critically and equally question what each party had to say? Perhaps not.

If we examine what most politicians had to say about the shooting (while setting the subject of politics aside), it seems they’re looking for the same thing: preventing similar tragedies from happening in the future. These articles don’t bring this point across, and instead focus on partisanship and pitting one side of the political spectrum against the other.

Subjects like violence and gun control are very complex, and opinions about them and viable solutions to problems like Las Vegas’ are often divided. What’s needed is more information to understand the challenges involved, and especially the root causes that lead to shootings and other violent crimes. The media’s biases, in this sense, may further misinformation and polarization, and distract communities from focusing on the issues at hand.

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

  • 55% Spun

  • 66% Spun

  • 75% Spun

  • 79% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

NBC News

“President Donald Trump believes that now is not the time to talk about gun control in the immediate aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, the White House said Monday.”

Sanders said, “it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don’t fully know all the facts or what took place.”

FOX News

“When asked about Murphy’s comments in the briefing, Sanders said she agreed that Congress “should get up and do something,” taking a shot at the legislative branch for having “several months” of “doing very little.”

Sanders said “I think Congress has had several months of doing very little and we’d like to see some actual legislation come through.”

Fact Comparison

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

The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. was previously the worst gun massacre in U.S. history. (Los Angeles Times)

It’s less than 24 hours after the deadliest shooting in U.S. history. (Time)


The outlets don’t clarify the time period they’re using to declare the Las Vegas shooting as the deadliest “in U.S. history,” which could misrepresent some events in the country’s past.

As Vox points out, mass gun-related killings with larger death tolls have occurred in the country’s history. For example, on Nov. 29, 1864, 675 Colorado volunteer soldiers killed about 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people. And in April 1873, a group of at least 150 white men attacked an all-black militia and killed an estimated 60 to 150 African-Americans.

Sanders said the city of Chicago has “the strictest gun laws in the country” and some of the highest murder rates. (Time, Fox News, NBC News)


None of the outlets noted that Sanders didn’t qualify or substantiate her comment about Chicago’s gun laws. Without knowing the measure(s) by which Chicago’s laws may be considered “stricter” or “the strictest,” it’s difficult to assess the validity of such a statement and it could inspire inaccurate assumptions about the city, as well as the relationship between gun control laws and shooting-related crimes.

For comparison, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranks Illinois eighth among the 50 states for its restrictive gun possession laws (it ranks California in first place for having the strictest gun possession laws). The center bases its ranking system on the “relative strength of each policy” as evaluated by its lawyers, giving a state points for policies like requiring background checks for firearm sales, and deducting points for policies that “play fast and loose with public safety, such as allowing people to carry concealed, loaded guns in public without a permit.”

According to Politifact, Chicago’s gun laws changed after two court cases: a case in 2010 overturned Chicago’s ban on handgun possession and a case in 2013 overturned the state’s ban on carrying concealed weapons.

Headlines

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

Turns the news into a fight about gun control.

Sanders’ comments relating to Hillary Clinton and Democratic lawmakers were in response to questions from the press. Why focus on this and then call it a “hit”?

Oversimplifies Sanders’ comments on gun control talks.

Sanders said the gun control discussion would be premature because “we don’t fully know all the facts.” From this headline, it sounds like she “dismissed” it altogether.

Fixes the attention on the positive aspects of the news.

This headline may be an emotionally touching tribute, but it’s only a part of the White House’s response to the shooting.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • By dodging the gun control conversation with the excuse of mourning, Trump is being irresponsible as a president. (Los Angeles Times, NBC News, TIME)
  • Gun control needs to be discussed and Congress needs to do something about it — it’s the only way to solve this problem. (Los Angeles Times, NBC News, TIME)
  • The president is inconsistent in his responses to tragedy. He pushes for his agenda when it is opportune (such as tweeting about his proposed “Muslim ban” immediately after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Miami) but he refuses to address gun control after this mass killing in Las Vegas. (Los Angeles Times, NBC News, TIME)
  • Fox News, on the other hand, highlights that The White House criticized congressional Democrats and Clinton for making requests for greater restrictions on guns, saying “now is the time for the country to come together” and that it is a time for “mourning.”
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • It may not be irresponsible for the White House to not address gun control immediately; this issue might be better explored in a less emotional climate.
  • Gun control may not always be effective. For instance, Sanders noted that Chicago has strict gun control laws, yet also a high murder rate, which includes shootings. DNAInfo lists some of these laws, recent changes to them and how they compare to other major cities’ regulations. The Chicago Tribune also did a study of how Chicago compares to other cities in homicide rates. While Chicago’s gun laws are comparable to those of New York City and Los Angeles, it does have the highest homicide rate for 2016.
  • Inconsistency doesn’t necessarily invalidate the president’s responses or their appropriateness. Each situation is different and may call for a different response.
  • Clinton and some congressional Democrats deem this is an appropriate time to raise the issue of gun control, as the shooting in Las Vegas highlights the damage that can be inflicted with automatic weapons. Their perspective has merits, as does the White House’s — the fact that they oppose each other does not make either one invalid.

Timeline

See this link for an extensive timeline of U.S. shootings over the past 30 years.