Five ways the media slanted its coverage of Trump’s meeting with the Russians | The Knife Media

Here are two versions of what was reported today about Trump’s meeting with Russian officials. Compare “A” to “B”:

A: What happened

Trump met with Russian officials last week (we don’t know what he did or didn’t say during the meeting). Some officials then placed calls to the CIA and NSA (we also don’t know what they said). Anonymous “current and former U.S. officials” told The Washington Post that Trump disclosed “highly classified information.” Lt. General McMaster then said Trump did not discuss intelligence sources or methods, or military operations that aren’t publicly known. The Russian Foreign Ministry called the reports “another fake.”

B: How the media portrayed it

With his disclosure, Trump breached espionage etiquette and jeopardized national security and an allied intelligence source with critical information on IS. What’s worse, he gave the information to an adversary, Russia, which further points towards suspicions that his administration has ties with the country. Because of the disclosure, Russia could figure out the source and disrupt it to its advantage. The disclosure could also limit the ability of the U.S. and its allies to detect future threats from IS. Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers are stunned and deeply concerned, and pessimistic about Trump’s administration.

Version “A” is a condensed version of the Raw Data, the Knife’s process of boiling a news article down to its most data-based, measurable facts. Version “B” is a summary of the media’s coverage of the same story. We toned down the spin in the latter, but the difference between the two is still significant.

If you read today’s accounts by The Washington Post, The New York Times and others, you’ll likely get the impression that the disclosure will have negative consequences for the U.S. and its allies and that Trump’s apparently unchecked behavior means he’s unfit to lead the country. This may be true and it may not; either way, it’s based on little to no information. Consider the following ways the outlets we analyzed covered the story:

  1. Anonymous sources: “officials said”

All of the sources that are cited as reporting the information are anonymous. It’s hard to tell how many of them there are, where they work or what kind of authority they may have. Citing anonymous sources can be necessary in journalism, yet it can also lead to less accountability.

Missing information: identities, roles or ranks.

  1. Third-party opinions: “a chorus of concern.”

Aside from the White House and the Russian Foreign Ministry, all the sources the outlets cite give negative opinions about Trump or the situation at hand. They range from statements like “‘very, very troubling’ if [reports are] true” to “If true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community.” There are also other less reserved opinions, such as, “[Trump] has no filter; it’s in one ear and out the mouth” and “Trump seems to be very reckless and doesn’t grasp the gravity of the things he’s dealing with.” How is it that four of the most prominent news outlets in the world found only negative opinions for this story? Did they look for other perspectives?

Missing information: any opinion that isn’t negative.

  1. Speculative juxtaposition: “it’s all clouded because of this problem [Trump] has with Russia.”

The four outlets mention the current speculation in the media about the White House’s possible ties with Russia. Some, like The Washington Post, give greater prominence to this in its coverage, and its juxtaposition of Trump’s meeting with Russian officials on Wednesday with what it calls “rising legal and political pressure on multiple Russia-related fronts” may elevate those suspicions.

Missing information: anything proving the administration colluded with Russia.

  1. Possible outcomes: “a downward spiral.”

The four outlets slant the potential significance of Trump’s disclosure in a negative light, in that they only present bad possible outcomes. These range from suggesting the ally in question may “cut off access to … sensitive information,” to the possibility that Russia could figure out the source’s identity and “disrupt” it. In the least, one outlet says, the disclosure calls “into question the ability of the United States to keep secrets.” Even if Trump did indeed disclose and the information which breached espionage protocols, it’s possible this won’t greatly affect the U.S.’ relationship with its ally.

Missing information: any other possible outcome that is not negative for the U.S. and its ally.

  1. Spin: Dramatic or alarmist language is especially impactful when a report lacks significant data. There’s quite a bit in this coverage. If an outlet engages readers emotionally, they may be less likely to read from a critical standpoint. That’s why thrillers work and why we love them: we get wrapped up in the suspense as we wait and wait for that lady to see what’s behind the closet door, all the while not noticing that nothing has happened (lots of emotion, very little data).

All in all, the outlets we analyzed here present readers with what they characterize as a huge problem, the “damage” that Trump created, as The Washington Post puts it. And yes, if he did violate any protocols or agreements, there will be consequences that he and his administration would need to address. And yes, such a disclosure could have negative consequences on allies and national security. But when you consider the number of unknowns in the actual news event, and the attention and treatment the media is giving it, which is more damaging? Spoon-feeding premature conclusions about the president and national security affects the perceptions of millions of readers.

It’s not to say the media shouldn’t break a story before it has on-the-record sources, or that it shouldn’t suggest potential negative outcomes, but there are more responsible ways of reporting that might encourage critical thinking rather than an adherence to sensational and premature conclusions.

Photo credit: AP Images

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