Across the Spectrum - How Bias In News Reporting Impacts Our Perception of Events
Since it was revealed that fabricated articles were widely disseminated through Facebook and other social media platforms during the 2016 Presidential Election, "fake news" has been named Politifact's Lie of the Year, linked to Russian tampering efforts, and co-opted by our new President and his staff to describe journalistic endeavors they dislike.
Unfortunately, the rapid propagation of the term has made it difficult to determine where, exactly, we should be getting "real news". Fox News and Breitbart have thus far avoided the Executive Branch's new favorite term, but both are conservative outlets. The booming New York Times and the Washington Post are both fairly considered liberal sources. Somewhere in between are CNN and MSNBC; the former is one of President Trump's favorite targets and the latter is sure to be targeted soon after blacklisting Trump's Counselor, Kellyanne Conway.
According to a 2014 panel by the Pew Research Center, the media sources closest to a neutral audience are Yahoo! News and the Wall Street Journal. They even made their chart easy to download in case you don't want to click through on any of our links:
The idea behind the Across the Spectrum series is simple. I think Trump's detractors are getting most, if not all, of their news from a handful of sources on the left side of this chart. Likewise, I believe Trump's advocates are getting most, if not all, of their news from sources on the right side. Finally, and most importantly, I'm hypothesizing that the disparity between stories by sources on the left and right is dramatic enough to make intelligent conversation across the divide nearly impossible; it's very difficult to debate when you can't even agree on a topic.
So here's what we're going to do: take some of the biggest headlines related to the Trump administration and collect articles from six different sources for each. The six sources will remain the same: The New York Times and the Washington Post on the left; Breitbart and Fox News on the right; Yahoo! News in the middle; and BBC for some international (I assume fish 'n chips) flavor. I'll provide some analysis of the differences I notice in each topic's coverage, but keep in mind, I am Questionably Qualified. The real goal is to collect these sources in one place so that you can make up your own mind and have more productive conversations across the aisle.
The format for each will be:
- Source: Headline (Character Count | Trump-Critical Sources Quoted | Trump-Supportive Sources Quoted)
The Trump Administration: January 20th, 2017 to February 15th, 2017
February 13th: National Security Advisor Michael Flynn Resigns
- New York Times: Michael Flynn Resigns as National Security Adviser (13,475 | 2 | 4)
- Washington Post: Michael Flynn Resigns as National Security Adviser (8,433 | 0 | 2)
- BBC: Michael Flynn: Former US National Security Adviser (5,517 | 1 | 2)
- Yahoo! News: Trump Knew Flynn Misled WH Weeks Before Ouster: Officials (7,193 | 0 | 3)
- Fox News: Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn Resigns (2,722 | 0 | 3)
- Breitbart: Michael Flynn Resigns as National Security Advisor (4,034 | 0 | 1)
Analysis: There's a stark contrast in the foci (I couldn't resist a chance to use it) of sources on the left and right on this topic. The New York Times and the BBC both mention Flynn attending a banquet for the Russian government last year, and along with the Washington Post go into detail on Flynn's conduct during Trump's campaign. Fox News and Breitbart spend more time on potential replacements and the impact on Trump's cabinet today. The New York Times and Yahoo! News are the only two sources to discuss the implications of Trump and other staff knowing the nature of Flynn's conversations for some time.
February 7th: Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Secretary of Education
- New York Times: Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary; Pence Breaks Tie (10,524 | 6 | 2)
- Washington Post: With Historic Tiebreaker from Pence, DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary (9,114 | 2 | 3)
- BBC: Education Nominee Betsy DeVos Wins Senate Confirmation Vote (4,720 | 0 | 1)
- Yahoo! News: Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary After Historic Tie-Break by Mike Pence (1,118 | 0 | 0)
- Fox News: DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary, Pence Casts Historic Tie-Breaking Vote (3,840 | 1 | 4)
- Breitbart: Pence Breaks US Senate Tie to Confirm DeVos as Secretary of Education (510 | 0 | 1)
Analysis: The most striking difference in the coverage here is in the way each source introduces DeVos: Fox News refers to her as a "school choice advocate" while the New York Times describes her as "a wealthy Republican donor with almost no experience in public education." At least BBC, Yahoo! News, and Breitbart can all agree she's a billionaire. A primary driver of the longer pieces for sources on the left is the inclusion of DeVos's background, absent from the other coverage.
February 4th: Trump Refers to James L. Robart as "So-Called Judge"
- New York Times: 'So-Called' Judge Criticized by Trump is Known as a Mainstream Republican (4,118 | 5 | 1)
- Washington Post: Trump Lashes Out at 'So-Called Judge' who Temporarily Blocked Travel Ban (6,653 | 1 | 2)
- BBC: US Reverses Travel Ban Over Court Ruling as Trump Fumes (5,316 | 4 | 1)
- Yahoo! News: Donald Trump Blasts "So-Called Judge" Who Halted Travel Ban, In Morning Twitter Tirade (2,168 | 0 | 1)
- Fox News: Trump Lashes Out at Travel Ban Ruling by 'So-Called Judge' (6,726 | 3 | 2)
- Breitbart: The Latest: Trump Blasts Travel Ruling by 'So-Called Judge' (3,839 | 0 | 1)
Analysis: As the headline suggests, the New York Times article is more concerned with Robart's background than Trump's description of him. The other five sources all directly cite Trump's tweets. The Washington Post and BBC both include specific examples of individuals impacted by the ban, whereas Fox News and Breitbart focus more on the international impact of its reversal.
January 29th: U.S. Military Raid in Yemen
- New York Times: U.S. Commando Killed in Yemen in Trump's First Counterterrorism Operation (7,809 | 1 | 2)
- Washington Post: U.S. Service Member Killed in Yemen Raid Marks First Combat Death of Trump Administration (5,499 | 1 | 1)
- BBC: Yemen Al-Qaeda: US Commandos Raid Stronghold (2,126 | 0 | 0)
- Yahoo! News: Commando Dies in U.S. Raid in Yemen, First Military Op OK'd by Trump (3,870 | 2 | 2)
- Fox News: US Navy SEAL Killed, 3 Injured in Raid on Al Qaeda in Yemen (3,950 | 0 | 2)
- Breitbart: US Elite Forces in Deadly Raid on Qaeda in Yemen (3,905 | 0 | 1)
Analysis: The Washington Post and the New York Times include local Yemeni sources in their coverage; Fox News and Breitbart give more details about the terrorist activities linked to the Qaeda group involved, going back as far as 2009.
January 28th: President Trump's Call with Australian Prime Minister
- New York Times: U.S.-Australia Rift is Possible after Trump Ends Call with Prime Minister (7,562 | 2 | 1)
- Washington Post: 'This was the worst call by far': Trump Badgered, Bragged and Abruptly Ended Phone Call with Australian Leader (8,955 | 1 | 1)
- BBC: US-Australia Refugee Deal: Trump in 'worst call' with Turnbull (6,328 | 1 | 1)
- Yahoo! News: Trump Ripped into Australian Leader on Call: Report (3,735 | 0 | 1)
- Fox News: Trump Reportedly Accuses Australian PM of Seeking to Export next 'Boston Bombers' (2,288 | 0 | 1)
- Breitbart: 'Why are we doing this?' Trump Questions Australian Refugee Resettlement Plan (4,706 | 0 | 3)
Analysis: This topic might have provided the biggest outlier, as everyone but Breitbart presented a fairly consistent story. The Washington Post and the New York Times both mention Trump's claim that he would "get killed" politically because of the refugee agreement; Breitbart does as well, but immediately casts doubt on the integrity of the quote's source, saying "The most convincing supporting evidence of the account of these "senior U.S. officials..." before embedding a tweet from Trump. Yahoo! News, the New York Times, and the Washington Post all connect the nature of this phone call to Trump's call with Mexico's President, Enrique Pena Nieto.
January 28th: Steve Bannon Added to National Security Council
- New York Times: Bannon is Given Security Role Usually Held for Generals (11,882 | 4 | 2)
- Washington Post: Trump Orders ISIS Plan, Talks with Putin and Gives Bannon National Security Role (8,572 | 1 | 2)
- BBC: Trump Puts Bannon on Security Council, Dropping Joint Chiefs (2,296 | 0 | 1)
- Yahoo! News: Controversial Trump Aide Bannon Elevated to WH Security Council (2,167 | 0 | 1)
- Fox News: 'Utter Nonsense': Spicer Fires Back at Media over NSC, Executive Order Coverage (4,072 | 1 | 1)
- Breitbart: New Presidential Actions: Lobbying Ban, Defeat ISIS Plan, National Security Council Reorganization (2,656 | 0 | 1)
Analysis: All four sources from the left to the middle of the spectrum mention Bannon's connection to Breitbart and its unsavory reputation. Fox News (and Breitbart, obviously) makes no such reference, and instead focuses on the media's coverage of the appointment. Most of the outlets mention similarities to previous administrations' executive orders, but only the New York Times points out Bannon's elevation as entirely unique to this one.
January 27th: Executive Order 13769 (The Travel Ban)
- New York Times: Trump Bars Refugees and Citizens of 7 Muslim Countries (N/A: At this point I found out I would need a subscription to keep pulling NYT articles. Maybe someday!)
- Washington Post: Trump Signs Order Temporarily Halting Admission of Refugees, Promises Priority for Christians (8,458 | 4 | 2)
- BBC: Trump's 'Extreme Vetting' Order Sows Seeds of Panic (5,766 | 4 | 1)
- Yahoo! News: After Court Orders on Travel Ban, Advocates Keep Close Watch on Airports (4,249 | 2 | 0)
- Fox News: Protests Erupt at Airports around the U.S. Following Trump Travel Ban (4,104 | 5 | 0)
- Breitbart: President Trump Signs Executive Order Temporarily Halting All Refugees (8,391 | 2 | 2)
Analysis: This is by far the longest article Breitbart published out of the eight included here. BBC, the Washington Post, and Fox News all cite the experiences of individuals affected by the executive order. The Washington Post is the only source to explicitly mention the order's priority allowance for religious minorities, and Yahoo! News is the only one to include commentary on the order's impact on green card holders.
January 21st: Sean Spicer Addresses the Media for the First Time
- New York Times: With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift (see note above)
- Washington Post: Trump's Press Secretary Lashes Out at Press, Calling Crowd Coverage 'shameful and wrong' (3,260 | 0 | 1)
- BBC: Trump Claims Media 'dishonest' over Crowd Photos (5,305 | 3 | 3)
- Yahoo! News: White House Claims Largest Crowd Size in History, Despite Evidence to the Contrary (4,298 | 0 | 1)
- Fox News: Spicer Accuses Media of 'false reporting' in Fiery Briefing (2,137 | 0 | 1)
- Breitbart: Sean Spicer Scolds Media for Negative Donald Trump Coverage (1,432 | 0 | 1)
Analysis: Five sources include either estimates of previous crowd sizes or the side-by-side photos tweeted; Breitbart is the only exception. The same goes for the inclusion of the MLK bust incident. Breitbart is the only source to include Spicer's reassurance that "our intention's never to lie to you."
I'll be providing some more detailed analysis of article length and sourcing after we've accumulated some more examples. For now, I hope we've provided an interesting glimpse into the way sources with audiences across the political spectrum cover the same events. We'll check back in a couple of weeks with new material, including Donald Trump's first press conference as the President.