Over the weekend the Mueller investigation released some shocking details in regards to Trump’s campaign and current administration. New information about possible Russian collusion and felony charges against the president during his 2016 campaign have been picked up and reported on by the media. Conversations about possible grounds for impeachment are beginning to start on networks like MSNBC, CNN, and even Fox News. Everyone is waiting to see what will happen next and what steps, if any, the president and his legal team are going to take. As is expected with the breaking of a politically and emotionally charged story, a number of news outlets are beginning to release articles about what can be expected in the coming days, weeks, and months, as the Mueller investigation unearths more and more evidence.
Many of these articles include clear examples of journalistic bias. For example, a piece by Washington Post journalists Robert Costa and Philip Rucker called “‘Siege warfare’: Republican anxiety spikes as Trump faces growing legal and political perils” demonstrates event dramatization and focuses specifically on the characters at the heart of all the drama.
Bennett defines dramatization as news stories that “emphasize crisis over continuity, the present over the past or future, and the personalities at their center” (Bennett 2008, 178). While this event and the allegations against Trump are very serious and cause for alarm, the dramatization of Mueller’s findings undercuts their severity. “Lost in the news drama are sustained analyses of persistent problems such as inequality, […] and political oppression” (Bennett 2008, 178). The Washington post article dramatized the event with phrases like “political hailstorm”, “distressing”, “reeling”, and “intensifying”. In addition to this, the article focused on both sides of the aisle, and makes it seem like Trump and his legal team are plowing forward with a kind of ‘you can’t touch us’ attitude. While there was some analysis of the problem at hand and what it could mean legally, the article focused more on the drama between Democrats waiting to take over the House in January and Republicans. It also played off of so called ‘breaking points’, or moments when the presidents hypothetical actions could spell political suicide and cost him support from key Republican senators. Overall, the article focused more on the personalities, specifically Trump and his aides, at the epicenter of the story.
In addition to this, while this article did a fairly good job at remaining unbiased in their coverage, there was a certain crisis frame placed around their reporting. And because the allegations of crimes committed by Trump is directly tied with an emotion (whether that emotion is positive or one of fear or anger), the crisis cycle as shown by the language used in this article, could hurt the validity of Mueller’s findings by redirecting people into “waves of immediate emotion” and away from fact (Bennett 2008, 178). The evidence uncovered by Mueller is critical to the stability and integrity of our democracy and for this reason it is crucial that the reporting on this evident is done correctly and free of journalistic bias or an attempt to up-sell the event for more ratings.
It is entirely logical, in my opinion, to be concerned and anxious to discover the truth about Trump, no matter what side of the aisle you vote for. This event, if true, marks an extreme assault on America’s institutions and their integrity. And for this reason, journalists need to be overly careful not to slant their coverage towards dramatization as this can have a profound negative effect on the story itself. In order to systematically investigate this bias a code should be developed to pinpoint dramatization and categorize it in order to better understand what it looks like in actions. Similar to what Atkinson did in Combative Politics, a code for dramatization and its severity could help educate readers on how to better analyze articles with dramatic slants. Which is important in order to make sure we, as media consumers, do not get bogged down in our initial emotional responses to particular political headlines.
Atkinson, Mary Layton. 2017. Combative Politics: the media and public perceptions of lawmaking. London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd.
Bennett, W. Lance. 2008. News: The Politics of Illusion. In The Lanahan Readings in Media and Politics, ed. Lewis S. Ringel, 173-184. Baltimore: Lanahan Publishers Inc.
I have acted with honesty and integrity in producing this work and am unaware of anyone who has not. Ashton Eggers 12/09/2018