Study: How mainstream media Twitter accounts amplified Trump's false State of the Union claims

Study: How mainstream media Twitter accounts amplified Trump's false State of the Union claims

Dozens of tweets from major outlets promoted Trump misinformation

Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ & ROB SAVILLO


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

President Donald Trump offered a truly astounding boast during his last State of the Union speech. “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea," he claimed from the well of the House of Representatives, suggesting that only his own diplomatic skill had averted the deaths of millions.

Media fact-checkers and foreign policy experts subsequently rebuked his obviously nonsensical assertion, pointing out that the United States had not been on the brink of war with North Korea before Trump took office. But in the hours after he made the bogus statement, the Twitter feeds of several major news outlets -- including USA Today, CBS News, NBC News, The Hill, CNN, ABC News, Reuters, MSNBC, and Los Angeles Times -- pushed it out to their audiences unchallenged.

This failure was not anomalous.

Thirteen major news outlet feeds sent a total of 49 tweets promoting a variety of false or misleading Trump comments in the 24 hours after Trump’s State of the Union began, according to a Media Matters review. By sharing the president's claims without debunking them, the outlets misled their followers when they could have enlightened them. And given the State of the Union’s prominence and the emphasis news outlets put that night on fact-checking, these results likely understate the overall problem.

Journalists typically consider a president’s comments to be inherently newsworthy, and their practice of forwarding his words in this manner reflects that sensibility. But this president is different: Every journalist knows that Trump lies on a scale that is unprecedented in recent political history. He launched his political career with the birther lie about President Barack Obama, began his presidency with lies about the crowd size at his inauguration, and has only accelerated the pace of misinformation in the years since. The Washington Post’s fact-checking team reports that he has made 9,014 false or misleading claims during his presidency; the count of Toronto Star Washington bureau chief Daniel Dale stands at 4,445 false claims over that period.

And yet, the press has not risen to meet the challenge of a president who lies all the time. Many news outlets are still in the habit of reporting on what Trump said in their headlines and tweets without questioning whether his remarks are accurate. This style of coverage misleads the audiences, as many readers don’t bother to investigate further. As Dale put it in a November op-ed, news outlets that “blast out the lies unnoted” benefit Trump, who “knows the lies will be broadcast unfiltered to tens of millions of people — by some of the very outlets he disparages as ‘fake news.’” This is especially a problem on Twitter, a platform where retweets can bring this misinformation into your timeline without context. 

In order to begin to assess the scope of the problem, Media Matters reviewed more than 1,200 tweets sent by 25 Twitter accounts of major news outlets during the 24 hours after 9 p.m. EST on February 5 -- the hour in which Trump’s State of the Union speech began. We looked at the Twitter accounts of the major U.S. wire services; broadcast, cable, and radio networks; national newspapers; and the Capitol Hill newspapers and digital outlets that cover Congress and the White House.

We compared all the tweets that referenced a Trump comment to The Washington Post’s database of false or misleading Trump quotes. While fact-checking is subjective and no list of false or misleading claims will be entirely comprehensive, the Post database provides a substantial comparison point for our purposes. For tweets that included false or misleading Trump quotes, we determined whether the tweet had disputed the false or misleading claim. (We did not include cases in which the news outlet had tweeted a video clip in which the president said something false or misleading and the outlet did not specifically highlight that falsehood; this also promotes misinformation but is outside the bounds of our study.)

Our results show that many media outlets are still struggling to avoid promoting the president’s falsehoods. Thirteen of the 25 Twitter feeds that we reviewed tweeted at least one false or misleading comment by Trump without disputing it within the tweet.  

Several news outlets’ Twitter feeds showed significant room for improvement. Notably:

  • @TheHill sent 17 tweets amplifying a false or misleading Trump claim without disputing it.
  • @ABC sent 12 tweets amplifying a false or misleading Trump claim without disputing it. 
  • @CNNPolitics sent four tweets amplifying a false or misleading Trump claim without disputing it.

By contrast, the Twitter feeds of The Washington Post (@washingtonpost, @postpolitics), The New York Times (@nytimes, @nytpolitics), and National Public Radio (@npr, @nprpolitics) scrupulously debunked every single false or misleading Trump comment they tweeted about over the course of the study.

The @latimes, @cnn, and @politico feeds disputed Trump's false or misleading claims in most but not all cases -- in four of five, seven of eight, and nine of 11 tweets, respectively.** 

Other feeds we reviewed that tweeted at least one undisputed false or misleading Trump comment during the period of the study include @Axios, @CBSNews, @MSNBC, @NBCNews, @rollcall, @Reuters, and @USAToday.

And several feeds, including @AP, @AP_Politics, @BreakingNews, @NBCPolitics, @ReutersPolitics, and @WSJ, did not tweet about any false Trump claims.

These results likely reflect a high-water mark for the news media’s performance in responding to Trump falsehoods in real time. The State of the Union is a unique news event: an annual preplanned speech by the president that receives wall-to-wall coverage from the press. The night’s importance and its scheduled nature allows outlets to plan for additional fact-checking of the speech, and the fact that journalists receive embargoed copies of the president’s speech ahead of time makes it easier to do so.

To their credit, outlets including the TimesNPR, LA Times, and Politico used extensive graphics to point out misleading elements during their coverage of Trump's speech: 

But news outlets still sent dozens of tweets that shared Trump’s false or misleading claims. And on a less high-profile day, there’s every reason to think the results would be worse.

Methodology

Media Matters reviewed all tweets mentioning “Trump” between 9 p.m. EST on February 5 and 9 p.m. EST on February 6 from the following Twitter feeds of U.S. wire services; major broadcast, cable, and radio networks; national newspapers; and Capitol Hill newspapers and digital outlets that cover Congress and the White House: @ABC, @AP, @AP_Politics, @axios, @BreakingNews, @CBSNews, @CNN, @CNNPolitics, @FoxNews*, @latimes, @MSNBC, @NBCNews, @NBCPolitics, @NPR, @nprpolitics, @nytpolitics, @politico, @postpolitics, @Reuters, @ReutersPolitics, @rollcall, @thehill, @nytimes, @WSJ, @washingtonpost, @USAToday.

Media Matters identified all tweets that were about a comment Trump had made. We then coded those tweets for whether they referenced a remark that’s included in the Washington Post Fact Checker’s list of false or misleading claims. In such cases, we reviewed whether the outlets’ tweets had disputed the Trump claim. We reviewed the text and images embedded in the tweets, but did not review embedded videos.

*@FoxNews did not tweet during the period of the study.

**Updated with additional information.

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