Trump in Vegas: the fine line between opinionated reporting and dishonor
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Trump in Vegas: the fine line between opinionated reporting and dishonor

October 5, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump visits Las Vegas after shooting that killed 59, injured 489

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump flew to Las Vegas to meet with victims of Sunday night’s shooting, their families, law enforcement and emergency personnel. He visited a hospital and a police station during his four-hour stay. Before the trip, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the purpose of the visit was to “grieve with the friends and family of the victims” and to offer “support to those recovering from wounds and thank courageous first responders.”

Joining him on the trip were first lady Melania Trump, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Representative Mark Amodei (R-Nev.). The first stop on the trip was the University Medical Center. During a 90-minute stay, Trump met with eight families affected by the shooting, and listened to their stories. He also met with around 100 medical professionals. In prepared remarks after the visit, Trump said the doctors were doing an “indescribable” job. To the victims and their families, he said, “We know that your sorrow feels endless. We stand together to help you carry your pain.”

After the hospital visit, Trump went to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police headquarters, meeting police officers and dispatchers who had responded to the shooting on Sunday. He did not visit the site of the shooting.

When asked whether the shooting warranted a renewed look at increased gun control, Trump said, “We’re not going to talk about that today.”

The shooting happened Sunday night, when Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire on a crowd attending an outdoor country music festival. The shooter was located on the 32nd floor of the adjacent Mandalay Bay hotel. He killed 58 people before shooting himself; another victim died Tuesday night. The media originally reported 527 injured. That number has been revised to 489, of which 317 have now been discharged from the hospital. Police are still investigating to determine the shooter’s motive.

Additional sources: The Associated Press, ABC News

Distortion Highlights

  • Some news outlets’ prognoses on Trump’s visit to Las Vegas focused on the issue of gun control, and what he would or wouldn’t say about it.
  • Others seemed to have used the news to disparage the president and suggest he’d fail to deliver during his visit.
  • Sunday’s tragedy may help elucidate how opinion-based reporting can promote dishonor and why, especially in media, it’s never a good thing.  

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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

  • Chaotic whirl

    Trump has spent the last eight months reeling from crisis to crisis, mostly of his own making, approximating the chaotic whirl that has characterized his entire adult life. (CNN)

  • Deeply entrenched

    The deeply entrenched partisan divide on gun control are (sic) illustrated by two former House colleagues who were both grievously injured in mass shootings. (The Guardian)

  • Wheeler-dealer

    Nothing in Trump’s career as a wheeler-dealer, reality star and bulldozing outsider politician has equipped him for what will be an emotional day Wednesday of meeting survivors and first responders following the worst mass shooting in modern American history. (CNN)

  • Throw down the gauntlet

    Democrats intend to throw down the gauntlet before Trump’s plane touches down by staging a high-profile event on the front steps of the US Capitol building in Washington. (The Guardian)

  • Blown out

    Trump was blown out in Clark County, Nevada’s population center that includes Las Vegas, by a deficit so large that Clinton managed to squeeze out a 47.9 percent to 45.5 percent victory in the state. (NBC News)

  • Appeals to the heart

    Past incidents – such as visceral TV images of children killed by poison gas in Syria – suggest that Trump can be swayed by direct appeals to the heart. (The Guardian)

  • Jarring

    But on the ground in Las Vegas, where he is expected to meet the state governor and city mayor, and possibly visit survivors in hospital, there will be no shortage of opportunities for a jarring remark. (The Guardian)

    Meeting local officials, Trump made a a (sic) jarring joke about the island putting the federal budget “a little out of whack.” (CNN)

  • Test of temperament

    “Trump faces test of temperament in Las Vegas – and entrenched partisan divide” (The Guardian)

    Donald Trump faces a test of temperament on Wednesday as he visits Las Vegas, the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, with Democrats stepping up political pressure for tighter gun laws. (The Guardian)

  • Steer clear

    But he is expected to steer clear of the gun control issue. (Fox News)

Over the past week, The Knife has covered analyses on dishonor in the media and news articles that are written like opinion pieces. This analysis encompasses both elements.

In writing about President Trump going to Las Vegas, some news outlets seemed to have used it more as an opportunity to criticize or disparage him, than to report on the situation and the purpose of the trip. Criticism becomes a problem when it’s presented as objective news, especially when it’s dishonorable and attacks a person’s character, instead of focusing on the data of their actions.

CNN’s article, for example, opens with opinion, shifting the focus of the trip in its headline to Trump supposedly “test[ing]” his “emotional depth” in Las Vegas. Then the article begins:

If you want a politician to shout your grievances, Donald Trump is your man. But he’s still learning to feel your pain.

Notice there isn’t a lot of data here. And because it’s figurative, we may not ascertain precisely what the outlet meant by wanting a politician to “shout your grievances.” When combined with the following sentence, it suggests the president lacks empathy — but again, this is the outlet’s opinion.

At times, the report reads more like an informal psychological profile on the president than a news article. It also focuses mostly on negative aspects, referring to him as a “bulldozing outsider politician” with a “brusque style” and a “tendency to whip up controversy with his awkward rhetorical style.” CNN also writes that “Nothing in Trump’s career … has equipped him for what will be an emotional day Wednesday.” This is completely devoid of fact, and the outlet also doesn’t tell us how they’re measuring his ability to handle it.

The outlet also, apparently, has a pulse on his “entire” adult life. It adds:

Trump has spent the last eight months reeling from crisis to crisis, mostly of his own making, approximating the chaotic whirl that has characterized his entire adult life.

These short excerpts capture the outlet’s bias, which suggests Trump’s apparent shortcomings destined him to fail in Las Vegas. And what’s this based on? An objective standard or code of conduct that all presidents must adhere to in situations like these? No, in this case it’s mostly opinion and speculation, and very little data. (For more on how the news covered other presidents in similar circumstances, read our Context section.)

Even if CNN’s opinions of Trump were all true, what do they have to do with Las Vegas and the president’s reasons for visiting with those affected? Does putting the spotlight on these opinions, rather than the situation and the visit, honor the victims, the responders, the office of the president or Trump himself?

With pieces like these, it might seem as if we’re defending Trump, but it’s not about him — it’s about what dishonorable media represents and what it allows for in the world. With the Las Vegas tragedy fresh in our minds, how can we, as a society, inspire people to move away from violence and hate? How might media outlets make it more difficult to do this when they write dishonorably? Although it’s become socially acceptable and often goes undetected, dishonor is also a form of hate and violence.

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

  • 50% Spun

  • 50% Spun

  • 65% Spun

  • 76% Spun

Fiction
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Fact

The Guardian

“Democrats intend to throw down the gauntlet before Trump’s plane touches down by staging a high-profile event on the front steps of the US Capitol building in Washington.”

Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) gave a speech on the steps of Capitol Hill, calling on Congress to show “moral courage” in dealing with gun control.

The Guardian

“But Trump is already notorious for divisive rhetoric at key national moments, including after the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August … But on the ground in Las Vegas … there will be no shortage of opportunities for a jarring remark.”

Trump made remarks after Charlottesville, noting there was “blame on both sides” of the conflict.

Fact Comparison

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

The shooting in Las Vegas was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. (The Guardian, CNN, NBC)


By not defining what they mean by “modern,” the outlets may leave readers wondering how far back in U.S. history they’re referring to. As noted in Tuesday’s Knife analysis, there have been gun-related killings with larger death tolls in the past. According to a previous CNN article, this was the deadliest mass shooting since at least 1949.

Headlines

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

Doesn’t say who’s “divided,” over what, or why Trump’s “temperament” is supposedly being “tested.”

This headline is uninformative, leaving readers to figure out what’s going on. It’s also dramatic, juxtaposing the event with a political debate that existed long before the shooting or Trump’s visit to Las Vegas.

Quotes Trump, but shows the fragment out of context.

Using Trump’s “Proud to be an American” quote out of context here could come across as sarcastic or inappropriate, possibly trivializing an event that has been traumatic for many.

Factual — no speculation, no opinion; this describes what reportedly happened.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • Gun control laws are a significant factor in preventing mass shootings, and Trump and his fellow Republicans should support them.
  • Trump lacks empathy and has little experience in diplomacy. He doesn’t behave in a “presidential” way, often speaking inappropriately or awkwardly, and creating problems or controversies.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • New gun control laws may reduce the occurrence of these crimes by restricting access to firearms, but they can’t address their causes because that’s not what those laws are designed to do. Guns or other objects used to perpetrate crimes are only part of the problem — the bigger part is what motivates people to enact violence. Maybe there are other options (such as education, community building and mental health treatment) that are worth considering as part of the solution.
  • Trump billed himself as an “outlier” during his campaign and his approach to issues continues to be unconventional, which some people appreciate. Given a number of factors (his life experience, business training and lack of experience with diplomacy, for example), his behavior may be unusual or even awkward, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he lacks empathy.

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

During this analysis, one of our most experienced analysts noted that in the 12 presidents she’s witnessed and read about in the news, she’s never seen coverage like this. “Generally, when a president visits the site of a tragedy or natural disaster, the articles are more positive or hopeful,” she said.

Opinion isn’t new to journalism, but we were curious to see how different media outlets wrote about past presidents as they faced tragedies similar to (or sometimes worse) than Las Vegas’. Working with The Knife’s timeline of mass shootings in the U.S., we compiled a brief sampling of articles from various sources that range from George H. W. Bush’s presidency to Barack Obama’s.

Although our researchers searched for both objective and what might be considered more “critical” articles, this list is limited in scope. We invite you to use it as a starting point to compare past articles to recent coverage. We hope the comparison and reflections are insightful.

Barack Obama

George W. Bush

Bill Clinton

  • On Apr. 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher, and wounded 24 others at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Sources: CNN, Los Angeles Times.

George H. W. Bush