For the first time in history, the president of the United States is announcing policy changes, voicing his opinions and responding to criticism on a regular basis through social media. Since he took office, he has used the platform to release new information on national security and his Supreme Court nomination, and to allege that Obama ordered his “wires tapped.” On an average week last month, Donald Trump sent messages via Twitter an average of six times per day. How should journalists cover these posts?
Let’s look at an example: comments Trump made about the apparent impact of his first executive order on immigration. On Jan. 27, Trump signed the order which, among other measures, prohibited people from seven specific countries from entering the U.S. On Jan. 30, he sent this message in two successive tweets:
“Only 109 people out of 325,000 were detained and held for questioning. Big problems at airports were caused by Delta computer outage...protesters and the tears of Senator Schumer. Secretary Kelly said that all is going well with very few problems. MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN!”
We examined how the news media covered these tweets. These were some of the headlines we analyzed:
- Trump takes aim at Sen. Schumer’s ‘fake tears’ in new defense of immigration restrictions (Fox News)
- Trump Blames Protesters, Delta, Sen. Charles Schumer for Airport Chaos (The Wall Street Journal)
- Trump blames 'tears of Senator Schumer,' Delta computers for airport issues (CNN)
- In tweets, President Trump denies immigration order caused airport chaos (Chicago Tribune)
These headlines do not accurately or objectively represent the president’s tweets, and neither do the articles that accopmany them. To understand why, consider the following ways in which the media distorted its coverage of these and other Trump tweets:
1) To cover or not cover: The media chooses which Trump tweets to cover, which ones not to cover and how much emphasis to give each one. If it gives more coverage to some and ignores others, this does not accurately reflect Trump’s overall communication via Twitter.
In the case of the travel ban, news organizations did cover the tweets, and they chose to feature them in their headlines and in long articles published on their homepages. This emphasis can give the impression that these tweets contain the most relevant information related to the travel ban and are Trump’s most significant comments on the subject. This may or may not be true.
2) Emphasizing the sensational: If news outlets do cover the president’s tweets, they can treat every word equally or give more weight to certain comments. Often, they emphasize the more sensational remarks.
Many outlets covering the travel ban focused on the sensational aspects of Trump’s tweets—in particular, his reference to “the tears of Senator Schumer.” This comment may evoke emotion or dramatize the issue, and can be viewed as offensive towards the senator. It also doesn’t adhere to logic: in reality, someone’s tears cannot cause “problems” at airports. Despite this, the media features Trump’s remark on Schumer’s “tears,” which gives the comment more publicity. For instance, CNN places it first in its headline, and only includes this part of the tweet in its lead sentence.
3) Focusing on additional information that can distract: If reporters emphasize secondary information such as people’s reactions or disagreements, they can dissuade people from focusing on the news events that likely have the greatest impact on the country.
Outlets included Schumer’s original comments, such as his remark that “there are tears running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight,” as well as his spokesman’s response to Trump, calling the president’s tweet “laughable.” These remarks can be a distraction and entertain readers rather than encouraging them to examine the policy issues at hand—namely those related to immigration and national security. It could also give validity to the nature of their exchange, which could be viewed as dishonorable or insulting, and suggest this is an appropriate way for leaders to behave.
4) Omitting additional information that could clarify: When the president makes comments that are vague or imprecise, the media could include additional information that could help people understand them. Often, news outlets do not do this.
In his tweets, Trump refers to “big problems at airports” and paraphrases Secretary Kelly saying “all is going well.” The Washington Post also cites Trump calling the travel ban a “success.” Trump did not define the terms “problems,” “well” or “success,” or provide details to further explain them. Given this lack of information, journalists could include data-based reporting on the conditions at airports that could help people understand the ban and its impact in a quantifiable way. The outlets we analyzed included few such examples. When they did, reporters used their own opinions to describe them, mixing the factual evidence with subjective interpretation.
5) Using spin to describe spin: When the president makes vague comments or gives his opinions, the media could report this objectively. Instead, they often add their own opinions.
Trump’s phrase “big problems” is not quantifiable and can be dramatic in nature. The word “problem,” for instance, is a subjective concept that can be defined as “a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation.” And as stated above, Trump does not give examples that might illustrate what he considers to be problematic. Quoting his comment verbatim might encourage readers to evaluate it for themselves and figure out what it might mean. Instead, media outlets include their own subjective interpretations of what apparently happened at airports:
The words “chaos,” “confusion” and “controversial” suggest the ban had negative effects, yet these concepts cannot be quantified and do not communicate precisely what Trump was referring to. Rather than helping people think critically about the travel ban, its effects and Trump’s comments , these opinion-based words tell people what to believe. They may also inspire fear about the order or disapproval of the administration that is not based on rational thinking or data-based arguments.
6) Focusing on the data: If media outlets focus on Trump’s data-based comments, they could serve as effective fact checkers and help people determine the quality and accuracy of the president’s information.
It’s difficult to examine the accuracy of phrases like “big problems” because they are subjective in nature. Yet Trump also includes data-based comments in his tweets. For instance, the president’s comment that 109 people were detained is quantifiable, and reporters and readers could investigate whether this information is true. Yet news outlets gave less coverage to factual statements such as this, and instead focused on the more sensational comments addressed above, which may support bias against Trump or portray him negatively.
The six categories above are not only relevant to Trump’s comments on the effects of the first travel ban. The media has distorted information in a similar way when covering Trump’s tweets about a federal court’s decision to suspend the travel ban, violence in Chicago, Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, the wiretapping allegation, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance as governor of California, and others.
Covering Trump’s tweets is not problematic in itself. It’s how the media chooses to do so that warrants examination. If news outlets focus on the most dramatic, sensationalist or emotional tweets, and do not report on them in a data-based way, this does not promote a consistent understanding of what the president is saying, it may be misleading, and it could promote a biased perspective of the administration. It can also add to an environment of divisiveness and partisanship, and encourage emotionality rather than rational evaluation.
The media has criticized Trump for making comments it deems dishonorable, uncharacteristic of his office, fear-based or not factual. Regardless of whether this is true, reporters undermine their own efforts when they publish work that is also of this nature. If the role of journalism is to educate and inform, then media outlets can best perform their function by presenting as much relevant and objective information as possible, not by producing news that entertains and presents opinions as fact.