The slant in the coverage of the travel ban ruling, from most to least visible

The slant in the coverage of the travel ban ruling, from most to least visible

June 28, 2018

The Knife Media

The slant in the coverage of the travel ban ruling, from most to least visible

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Supreme Court rules Trump’s travel ban is within ‘scope of presidential authority’

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from certain countries is “squarely within the scope of presidential authority” under federal law. The “travel ban,” in its current version, is a presidential proclamation that places temporary entry restrictions on nationals from seven countries, five of which are predominantly Muslim. The court ruled that lower courts should now consider the “travel ban” cases before them based on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of executive authority.

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • Some forms of bias or “slant” can be hard to detect, while others are more obvious
  • The coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Trump administration’s travel ban provides a useful case study
  • This analysis shows you three different ways news outlets slant information, with tips on how you can apply them in the future

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • An unqualified victory

    The ruling was an unqualified victory for the Trump administration, after earlier variants of the entry ban were greeted with raucous airport protests and break-neck litigation that left the White House reeling. (The Daily Caller)

  • Passionate and searing dissent

    In a passionate and searing dissent from the bench, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the decision was no better than Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 decision that endorsed the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II. (The New York Times)

  • Dressed-up

    After a series of federal court rulings invalidated or scaled back earlier versions of the travel ban, the decision is a big win for the administration and ends 15 months of legal battles over a key part of Trump’s immigration policy, which opponents attacked as a dressed-up form of the Muslim ban that Trump promised during his 2016 campaign. (NBC News)

  • Downplayed Trump’s statements

    The high court’s majority downplayed Trump’s campaign statements as a major factor in its decision. (Fox News)

  • The hardest-fought battles

    The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld President Trump’s controversial travel ban affecting several mostly Muslim countries, offering a limited endorsement of the president’s executive authority on immigration in one of the hardest-fought battles of this term.  (Fox News)

  • Robust endorsement

    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. (The New York Times)

  • Incendiary statements

    In a 5-to-4 vote, the court’s conservatives said the president’s statutory power over immigration was not undermined by his history of incendiary statements about the dangers he said Muslims pose to Americans. (The New York Times)

  • To chide Trump

    Though Kennedy joined the high court’s majority opinion in full, he wrote separately to chide Trump for disregarding his constitutional oath. (The Daily Caller)

  • But Sotomayor was unimpressed

    But Sotomayor was unimpressed, asserting that the Court “merely replaces one ‘gravely wrong’ decision with another.” (The Daily Caller)

  • A major sticking point

    A major sticking point for the justices was navigating how much discretion the president really has over immigration. (Fox News)

  • A major statement

    The court’s decision, a major statement on presidential power, marked the conclusion of a long-running dispute over Mr. Trump’s authority to make good on his campaign promises to secure the nation’s borders. (The New York Times)

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.

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

  • 50% Spun

  • 53% Spun

  • 58% Spun

  • 69% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The Daily Caller

“The ruling was an unqualified victory for the Trump administration, after earlier variants of the entry ban were greeted with raucous airport protests and break-neck litigation that left the White House reeling.”

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Trump’s ban on travel from certain countries is “squarely within the scope of presidential authority” under federal law. There were lawsuits and protests in airports against previous versions of the ban.

The New York Times

“In a passionate and searing dissent from the bench, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the decision was no better than Korematsu v. United States …”

In a dissent she read from the bench, Justice Sotomayor compared Tuesday’s decision to the Korematsu v. U.S. case, saying there are “stark parallels” in the reasoning.

The Numbers

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

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