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Media Reform: Associated Press Does the Right Thing in Deleting Ambiguous “Animals” Tweet

News media outlets have increasingly been under scrutiny for producing stories that are labeled “Fake News” which could be broadly described as stories that provide exaggerated, biased, misleading, or false information. In some cases, the stories are accurate, but the selection of those true stories is biased to present an overall message.

Among the first to be labeled “Fake News” was Fox News – being referred to as Faux News because of what has been perceived to be a conservative Republican bias in their reporting and programming. More recently, other networks have been criticized for getting some stories wrong (example), and for what is perceived to be a liberal pro-Democratic Party bias. The term Fake News was originally popularized by Jon Stewart as a self-deprecating label he gave his own show.

It’s tempting to exaggerate stories or be selective in what stories one tells in order to make a point, especially if one feels the ends justifies the means. However, in the long run, such an approach will fail and result in eroding public trust if people begin to perceive that a news source is biased.

On 16 June 2015, Trump made some derogatory statements about those who enter the country illegally to engage in dangerous criminal activity. For three years his words have been paraphrased as “Trump says all Mexicans are gang members, drug dealers, and rapists.” In reality he was referring to a dangerous subset of illegal immigrants, not all illegal immigrants and certainly not all immigrants nor all Mexicans. Yet, to this day, his statement is still remembered incorrectly.

On 16 May 2018, in a similar statement, Trump said of a certain group of immigrants that they are ‘animals’ – a phrase commonly used to describe thugs or very rough characters.

Some news media outlets took an excerpt of the statement out of context, and used it to show Trump referring to immigrants as animals. Here’s an example.

The White House press secretary clarified and elaborated on Trump’s statement, explaining that he was talking about MS-13 gang members.

Ultimately the headline story on Fox News about the incident was: “Anti-Trump media takes president out of context to incorrectly claim he called illegal immigrants ‘animals’” — once again painting certain media outlets as biased and deceptive, perpetuating the narrative that people can’t trust ‘the media.’ Several examples of misleading reports were given. Here’s one from the New York Times.

The USA Today story headline was “Trump ramps up rhetoric on undocumented immigrants: ‘These aren’t people. These are animals.‘”

This is an example of where people who are overzealous in their desire to criticize Trump may be exaggerating or leaving out some details, and as a result, their efforts are counterproductive. Critics will point to lies Trump has told, or derogatory things he’s said about other people as a basis for behaving the same way toward him. Yet, ultimately, our standards of decency and fairness shouldn’t be a function of how someone else behaves.

The Associated Press was quick to delete their tweet about the story, and provide this retraction and correction.

As much as possible, news media sources should try to avoid ambiguous or possibly misleading headlines and stories. When mistakes happen, it’s very important to quickly correct those mistakes.

In response to the AP clarification tweet, Donald Trump Jr. stated the following.

If what we’re trying to do is restore public trust in the media, we need to make sure that what we report is fair, accurate, honest, clear, and balanced. We also need to make sure the breadth of stories we choose represent a variety of viewpoints.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com

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