Trump’s tweets on aviation safety: What the media got right and what it missed
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Trump’s tweets on aviation safety: What the media got right and what it missed

January 3, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Aviation Safety Network reports zero commercial aviation fatalities in 2017

There were no fatalities on commercial airline flights anywhere in the world in 2017, and 44 total fatalities from cargo plane and regional airline crashes, the Aviation Safety Network (ASN) reported on Monday. U.S. President Trump tweeted on Tuesday, “Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news – it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

Read our full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • The media plays a critical role in holding our leaders accountable by pointing out discrepancies in their statements.
  • But who holds media outlets accountable for how they fact-check?
  • We show you what the media missed when it fact-checked Trump’s tweet on aviation safety.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Good luck

    Trump wishes to take credit for what’s happened overseas—matters both beyond the control of American power, and given the small sample size, also a product of good luck. (The Atlantic)

  • Little actual action

    But as with many of the president’s priorities, there’s been little actual action on this front. (The Atlantic)

  • Slight scrutiny

    The president’s claim can’t withstand even slight scrutiny. (The Atlantic)

  • A stretch

    But directly linking the President to these numbers is a stretch. (TIME)

  • Copious

    The president’s tweet is, once again, circumstantial evidence of his copious television watching—his Tuesday missives closely track stories on Fox News—though he denies he consumes TV. (The Atlantic)

  • Hardly

    And it’s hardly being strict with the commercial aviation industry, since industry officials back the plan. (AP)

  • Hard

    Second, it’s hard to find any evidence to back the president’s assertion that he has “been very strict on Commercial Aviation.” (The Atlantic)

  • Touted

    Sanders touted Trump’s announcement of a plan to “modernize air traffic control,” which stalled in Congress, and new “enhanced security measures” put in place by the Department of Homeland Security. (The Hill)

  • Remarkable

    It’s a remarkable record, but is it fair for President Donald Trump to claim some of the credit? (AP)

  • Drags

    Trump claimed to be “very strict” with airlines, but he has made rolling back regulations a pillar of his presidency, seeing them as drags on the economy. (AP)

The media plays a critical role when our leaders say false or misleading things; news outlets can hold them accountable and inform the public about discrepancies in their statements. In our editorial on fact checking Donald Trump, for instance, we cited the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which considers two of its pillars to be “assembling and verifying facts” and serving “as an independent monitor of power.”

This week, media outlets fact-checked Trump’s tweet about aviation fatality statistics. While they were correct in pointing out the flaws in his implication that he was responsible for the low death rate (see our Raw Data here), the media’s coverage of his tweets was limited in a couple of ways. First, it missed that Trump’s tweet was an implication; and second, some media outlets used dishonorable comments to point out the flaws in Trump’s tweet. Let’s explore.

Missing the implication

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted, “Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news – it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

Trump doesn’t directly say that he’s the reason for the lack of commercial fatalities. He does imply it though — through juxtaposition. None of the media outlets we analyzed acknowledged this distinction.

Why does this matter? First, it’s an opportunity to build public awareness of how juxtaposition can be used to make implications. (The media itself does this a lot, as we explored here and here.) You can take any two events that have something in common, place them next to each other and people may assume one caused the other.

It can be a sneaky way to lead an audience to a specific conclusion without having to actually say it (or provide data to back it up). And because it’s not directly stated, it can be harder to hold someone accountable for it. For instance, it’s trickier to sue someone for libel or slander for something they imply without stating it outright. News outlets could draw attention to these types of implications and help readers not be fooled by them.

The second reason this matters relates to Trump’s relationship with the media. Because he technically didn’t “take credit” for the aviation statistic, as outlets claim, he can reasonably deny that he did. In a sense, the media got it wrong, and Trump could use this to fuel his criticism of what he calls “fake news.” News outlets could be more rigorous and precise by acknowledging he implied he was responsible.

Data or dishonor?

Some outlets only used data and facts in order to disprove that Trump was responsible for the aviation safety record. For example, The Hill quotes Trump’s tweet and then immediately points out, “There has not been a fatal passenger airline crash in the U.S. since 2009.” The outlet uses data to show that the lack of fatalities in the U.S. precedes Trump’s tenure in office, and readers may infer that the statistic isn’t directly related to him.  

Some news outlets, however, go beyond just reporting data and include opinions that dishonor Trump and others. Consider this excerpt from The Atlantic:

Every president likes to take credit when things go well and pass along blame when they go poorly, but no president is as willing to take that pattern to its brazen extreme like Donald Trump.

The statement may dishonor all presidents, and especially Trump, by suggesting they are more concerned with their public image than taking responsibility for their actions and governing the nation. It discredits not just Trump’s implied claim about the 2017 aviation stats, but the president himself. The Atlantic may have a point about Trump’s behavior — but it’s opinion, not fact. It doesn’t belong in objective news reporting.

Facts are sufficient to hold politicians accountable for what they say. Character attacks are not necessary.

Fiction
or
Fact

The Hill

“Sanders touted Trump’s announcement of a plan to ‘modernize air traffic control,’ which stalled in Congress, and new ‘enhanced security measures’ put in place by the Department of Homeland Security.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said, “Last year, the president announced his initiative to modernize air traffic control.” The plan has not been implemented.

The Atlantic

“Every president likes to take credit when things go well and pass along blame when they go poorly, but no president is as willing to take that pattern to its brazen extreme like Donald Trump.”

It’s all opinion.

The Atlantic

Trump’s denial that he watches TV “is about as credible as his claiming any credit for a safe 2017 in air travel, which is to say it’s about as credible as an airline’s promise of gourmet dining in coach at 39,000 feet.”

Trump had limited opportunity to affect global aviation safety because much of air travel is outside U.S. jurisdiction, and because he hasn’t implemented many policy changes on domestic air travel.

The Numbers

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

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