The SOTU coverage: Here’s how sensationalized news limits critical thinking
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The SOTU coverage: Here’s how sensationalized news limits critical thinking

February 1, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump gives first State of the Union address

U.S. President Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union address Tuesday night. During his 80-minute speech, Trump discussed infrastructure investment, immigration and foreign affairs. He also spoke about the tax legislation passed in December, lower unemployment rates and efforts to defeat the Islamic State.

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • The coverage of the State of the Union address was spun, biased, dishonorable and filled with opinion.
  • While entertaining, it also comes with serious drawbacks in terms of critical thinking.
  • Here’s a look at what the outlets wrote, and how it helps make readers just a little less sharp.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Says-what-he-thinks swashbuckler

    To his ardent backers, he represents something other than the typical politician — a tough, says-what-he-thinks swashbuckler who, even if he can’t make things better for them, will make them worse for those they detest. (Los Angeles Times)

  • Partisan rancor

    Democrats at President Trump’s first State of the Union, after a year of partisan rancor, showed they were in no mood to accept his call for bipartisanship. (Fox News)

    And there’s little that Trump can say to undo the partisan rancor. (CNN)

  • Self-adulation

    A president so often preoccupied with self-adulation shone the spotlight on ordinary citizens. (The Washington Post)

  • Petulant partisans seething

    While Trump has undeniably contributed to the division in Washington, the images of petulant partisans seething at feel-good rhetoric was jarring for many observers. (Fox News)

  • Unifier-in-chief

    But overall, Democrats weren’t willing to give Trump the tile (sic) of unifier-in-chief Tuesday night despite Trump’s attempts. (CNN)

  • Dignified orthodoxy

    But after these occasional episodes of dignified orthodoxy, it usually is only a matter of days, or even hours, before he says something — often in a blistering tweet — to change the subject. (The Washington Post)

  • Statesman-like

    The president’s tone and tempo were slowed and moderated by his use of a teleprompter, so he appeared more statesman-like than the raucous Trump seen in campaign events — and expressed in his Twitter feed — except when he adopted his rally habit of applauding for himself as the audience did. (Los Angeles Times)

  • Near constant turmoil and division

    President Trump, whose first year in office saw near-constant turmoil and division, claimed Tuesday that he has ushered in an ebullientnew American moment” and issued a summons for “the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.” (The Washington Post)

  • Pomp and circumstance

    He embraces such traditional moments, complete with all the pomp and circumstance that he came to appreciate during his years as a reality television producer, and relishes the positive reviews that such appearances receive. (The Washington Post)

  • Rampant partisanship afoot

    The fact that so much of the president’s speech was met that way — one side enthusiastic and shouting “USA!” and the other grimacing its way through — underscored both the rampant partisanship afoot in the capital and how foreign the idea of unity actually is. (Los Angeles Times)

  • At least for one night

    As he delivered his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump attempted to suspend the polarizing realities of his presidency and stick to a scriptat least for one night. (CNN)

  • Uncharacteristically gentle

    His gibes at critics and opponents were uncharacteristically gentle, some delivered through stories of individual Americans — such as the tale of 12-year-old Preston Sharp, who headed a drive to place flags on veterans’ graves. (The Washington Post)

A recent Knife analysis observed that our daily news is written with drama, and that subjective opinions are presented as fact. Unfortunately, these tendencies impair critical thinking. The coverage of the State of the Union address is as an excellent example of this type of reporting. Here’s what the four outlets we analyzed wrote, and how it can curtail the way we think.

Fostering divisions

Division was the unifying theme in the four articles, oddly enough. Here’s an example from CNN. The dramatic or sensational language is noted in red.

But as the Russia investigation grips Washington and contentious impasses over spending and immigration threaten to undercut Trump’s legislative agenda and his party’s electoral future in 2018, any unity Trump hoped to inject with his speech was quickly shattered. (CNN)

Divisions and partisanship exist in the U.S. — we all contribute to them in some way. Do you think CNN recognizes that its own drama is a contributor to those divisions?

Drama complicates problem solving. Data-based reporting stands a better chance of inspiring thoughtful, civil debate.

Conflating the issues

Like CNN, The Washington Post juxtaposed Trump’s speech with other issues — that’s a slant technique that creates implication. Here’s one from the Post.

The speech came at a crucial moment when the president faces a number of challenges: historically bad approval ratings for a chief executive at this point in his term, an investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election hanging over his administration and midterm elections ahead in which Democrats are expected to make significant gains in Congress.

What’s the implication? That President Donald Trump stands little chance of succeeding as chief executive. It’s not to say the issues cited aren’t true, but the Post’s implication is subjective and disparaging. It also keeps other media drama alive, and draws our attention away from the speech. Wasn’t that the subject of this news at least?

Pure subjectivity

Los Angeles Times stated its own opinion as if it were fact, often disparaging Trump and Republicans. Here’s an example.

Trump’s strength has always been his ability to divide, not to unify. To his ardent backers, he represents something other than the typical politician — a tough, says-what-he-thinks swashbuckler who, even if he can’t make things better for them, will make them worse for those they detest.

News is supposed to convey the facts, right? The only objective fact here is that Trump is a politician. This type of reporting trains readers to mistake opinion for fact. That erodes our discernment skills, which are essential for critical thinking.

Promoting blame and dishonor

Fox News devoted most of its coverage to criticizing Democrats’ responses to the speech, suggesting they’re to blame for political divisions. For example:

[Trump’s call for unity] was met with one of more than 100 rounds of applause – but from just one side of the aisle. While Trump has undeniably contributed to the division in Washington, the images of petulant partisans seething at feel-good rhetoric was jarring for many observers.

Blame creates bias and we become less grounded in reality with it. Here, the blame negates everyone’s participation in creating the current political climate — from the president himself to the average citizen. By vilifying one party, Fox News promotes bias and divisiveness. The other three outlets did the same, except they blamed Trump and Republicans for the situation.

Additionally, the outlets’ use of dramatic, disparaging language conditions readers to expect entertainment rather than facts. Most regrettably, it normalizes dishonorable speech, which is a form of violence. This type of reporting trains society to condone behaviors such as cyberbullying and the ad hominem attacks so common on social media.

Sensational coverage ultimately grooms us to favor entertainment over being informed. By inhibiting the stimulation of our thinking, it also numbs us to the morality of the decisions we make. After all, who wants to examine the ethics or consequences of the decisions they make, when the allure of media drama is more captivating?

Considering the negative effects on our thinking, maybe we’ll think differently about that kind of reporting.

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

  • 67% Spun

  • 69% Spun

  • 70% Spun

  • 79% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The Washington Post

“A president so often preoccupied with self-adulation shone the spotlight on ordinary citizens.”

At times, Trump has praised his own policies and abilities. In his speech, Trump praised and honored some of the guests he invited.

FOX News

“[Democrats] scowled as President Trump touted soaring jobs numbers, sat stone-faced when he honored veterans, and one even walked out after becoming triggered by a patriotic chant.”

Trump spoke about record-low unemployment rates and honored veterans. Some Democrats did not smile, and some booed at different times during the speech. One person walked out when some in the audience chanted “U.S.A.”

CNN

“But overall, Democrats weren’t willing to give Trump the tile (sic) of unifier-in-chief Tuesday night despite Trump’s attempts.”

No facts here.

Los Angeles Times

“Trump said he was ‘extending an open hand’ to opposition Democrats gathered in the chamber. By the end of the speech, it may have felt like the back of one.”

Trump said he was “extending an open hand to work with members of both parties.”

The Numbers

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

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