Case Study: Haitian Earthquake Relief and the Clinton Foundation

For the past couple of months, I've talked a lot about media bias: the forms it takes, where we find it, how it's manipulated by candidates and how to identify it. Today, I want to take a practical approach by analyzing a current event and how it is covered by several media outlets.

Our case study involves Hillary Clinton's State Department giving preferential treatment to Clinton Foundation donors in the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake. To summarize the story, recently leaked State Department emails show a pattern of preferential treatment for "FOB" (friends of Bill) or "WJC VIPs" (William Jefferson Clinton very important person(s)) in contractors looking to help aid earthquake victims, in both emergency response and with more long-term rebuilding roles.

As you might expect, liberals contend there's nothing to these stories -- no one financially benefited from an association with the Clintons, the emails in question simply express typical networking. Conservatives, on the other hand, see these e-mails as further evidence of corruption, an inappropriate relationship between the Clinton State Department and the Clinton Foundation and proof that friends of the Clinton family enjoyed gross profits at the expense of Haitian victims who are still to this day living in the wreckage of that catastrophic event.

What do you think? Or more specifically, is what you think affected by the way this story is covered?

Is Less Coverage the Right Coverage?

Remember that one of the most insidious methods of media bias is to avoid sharing news at all (if you haven't heard about it, you can't get the "wrong" impression about it's importance, after all!)

When a media organization decides something is not newsworthy, they don't cover it. The trouble is, evidence suggests they consistently find bad news about Mrs. Clinton to be less newsworthy than bad news about Donald Trump. Consider this analysis, shared yesterday on Fox Business:

Trump's bad news is certainly more clear cut than Clinton's. Anyone can see that sexual misconduct is wrong (well, anyone but the media that covered Bill Clinton in the 1990s), especially when the accusations keep coming in. But there's a fair portion of the public who just don't see what's so bad about Clinton's e-mail scandal. This makes it financially logical for the media to cover Trump's scandals more than Clinton's.

(Not only that, but TRUMP keeps bringing it up! Instead of steering the press away from his scandals, he sits there in the mud he's made and cries about it!)

But there's no doubt, as the above screenshot suggests, that even at the outset, news outlets were WAY more likely to cover the Trump tape than they were to cover Clinton's emails. Is that because sex sells? Or is it media bias? Or maybe a little bit of both?

And what about this Haitian Earthquake story in particular? Is it newsworthy or not? Should the media make it a news priority? You'll have to answer that for yourself.

Who said What?
So which news outlets covered this story? Only a few from the mainstream. ABC News, the Associated Press and The Washington Post ran stories online. Most coverage, as you might expect, came from right-leaning news outlets, such as the National Review and Breitbart. But left-leaning Politico also covered it.

My analysis in a nutshell? ABC News and Politico provided the most balanced coverage. The Associated Press and Washington Post defended the Clintons (as you would expect) while the National Review and Breitbart were critical of the Clintons (as you would also expect). I urge you to read the articles for yourselves.

So what steps do I follow to come to my conclusions? More importantly, what steps can you follow when analyzing any story for potential bias?

1. Know your source
The first thing you need to do is know something about the source you're reading. Remember my blog post in which I analyzed Time Magazine and determined they leaned left based on their negative vs. positive cover images? It's the same type of analysis -- one which I encourage you to make for yourself. However, there are people who have done those kinds of analysis for you. This chart, created by Harvard's Pew Research Center, is quite handy:

2. Check the Date
I constantly see article shares on social media that are old news. That doesn't necessarily mean they are irrelevant, but it's something you need to know when analyzing a story. For example, by using search words: Haiti, Clinton Foundation, earthquake, I found dozens of older articles that were related to this story that certainly provide perspective from a background standpoint (some of which I include in my analysis), but which did not address the specifics of these leaked emails.

3. Analyze the Headline
Headlines set the tone for an article, telling us a lot about the stance of the writer before we even delve into the article itself. Of course, the point of a headline is to get you to keep reading, so expect them to be more dramatic than the content of the article itself. Consider these headlines on the issue in question:

  • 'FOBs': How Hillary's State Dept. Gave Special Attention to 'Friends of Bill' After Haiti Quake (ABC News)
  • How the Clinton Foundation Got Rich off Poor Haitians (National Review)
  • Donald Trump Is Accusing the Clintons of Cashing In on Haiti's 2010 Earthquake (AP/Fortune)
  • The Clintons' Haiti Screw-Up, As Told By Hillary's Emails (Politico)
Notice that the ABC headline teases an answer to a question that begins with "how" while remaining just on the critical side of neutral. The National Review article sets you up with a classic rich versus poor viewpoint while the Politico headline uses common vernacular hinting at a big mistake to draw you into their article. 

I find the Associated Press/Fortune headline the most politically bating: it's TRUMP whose behind these accusations! (I mean, yeah. Of course Trump brought it up, but this is the same as headlines saying: Hillary Blasts Trump on Treatment of  Women, as if Trump's sexual misconduct controversy started with Clinton.) Headlines like these draw on our love for drama and antagonism. It's so common, it must really work!

4. Read the Article
While reading the article, pay particular attention to adjectives, adverbs and verbs. They will tell you more about the potential for bias than anything else. Consider these excerpts from the articles I analyzed. First, let's look at the ABC article, where I have highlighted the adjectives and adverbs:

"In a series of candid email exchanges with top Clinton Foundation officials during the hours after the massive 2010 Haiti earthquake, a senior aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly gave special attention to those identified by the abbreviations “FOB” (friends of Bill Clinton) or “WJC VIPs” (William Jefferson Clinton VIPs)."
"Candid" reminds us the emails were meant to be private. "Massive" reminds us this was an important event. "Senior" tells us that someone close to Mrs. Clinton was involved while "repeatedly" and "special" tell us this wasn't an isolated incident and that the attention was something beyond normal.

Now, analyze the first paragraph of the Breitbart article:

The former president of the Haitian Senate excoriated Hillary Clinton and her embattled family foundation following the release of emails that reveal how senior Clinton Foundation staffers coordinated with top Hillary Clinton State Department officials to give special access to “FOB” (Friends of Bill Clinton) in the wake of the deadly 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Some of the terminology is similar, such as "special" and "top" (like "senior"), but then notice the strength of "excoriated," how the Clinton Foundation is labeled as "embattled" and even how the verb "reveal" suggests the sharing of secrets. This piece obviously leans more to the right than the ABC piece.

On to the next one. In an excerpt from his new book on Hillary Clinton, published in the National Review, writer Dinesh D'Souza begins with a strong image (a characteristic of features instead of hard news articles):

In January 2015 a group of Haitians surrounded the New York offices of the Clinton Foundation. They chanted slogans, accusing Bill and Hillary Clinton of having robbed them of “billions of dollars.” Two months later, the Haitians were at it again, accusing the Clintons of duplicity, malfeasance, and theft.
I highlighted a few nouns in this one too, but you're starting to get the picture, right? This article, like the Breitbart piece, leans to the right. Meanwhile, this AP piece, published in Fortune, uses a question and answer format, with "answers" like this straightforward recitation of the State Department's official position on the issue:

There is evidence from the emails that the State Department asked the Clinton Foundation to flag friends of Secretary Hillary Clinton and the former president, as employees from both organizations waded through offers of assistance.
“Need you to flag when people are friends of wjc. … most I can probably id, but not all,” State Department staffer Caitlin Klevorick wrote in an email to Clinton Foundation director of foreign policy Amitabh Desai just three days after the earthquake.
But there is no evidence these Clinton friends got preferential treatment or contracts as a result, the State Department said.
The Clinton campaign said Hillary Clinton never did anything at the State Department as a result of donations to the Clinton Foundation.
The AP article doesn't contain images of the original messages like the other pieces did, (which makes it all seem more pedestrian, in my opinion.)

The AP goes on to sympathetically explain the Clintons' ties to Haiti: 

It’s helpful to know about the Clintons’ history with Haiti, as the impoverished Caribbean nation holds a special place in the couple’s hearts and foreign policy portfolios. They vacationed there in 1975, shortly after they were married. During the Clinton administration, Bill Clinton deployed U.S. troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide following his military ouster three years prior. And Hillary Clinton said she made Haiti a priority when she became secretary of state, with specific goals of creating jobs and economic growth.

Wow. I feel all warm and fuzzy about the whole thing now.

Using a different tactic of defense, The Washington Post decided to debunk just one claim of the controversy when they gave Trump surrogate Michael Cohen four Pinocchios for claiming the Clintons took in "hundreds of millions of dollars" for a hospital that was never built. By demonstrating a lack of evidence to support Cohen's claim, the Post was able to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the entire controversy.

5. Examine the Source Material
If you really want to know whether a news source is handling their subject matter fairly, you need to examine some of the source material yourself. Follow threads, look up polls, compare interviews, read quoted books. In this case, read the text of the emails themselves to see if you agree with the analysis provided in news or editorial content.
Source: ABC News (whose source was the U.S. Department of State)
6. Compare Stories
Finally, do what we just did here: read multiple stories on the same subject from a variety of sources, each time analyzing these factors to determine how you judge their accuracy.

I'm not here to tell you what to think about the Clinton's involvement in Haiti, or even the larger issue of the destruction of her emails. The pieces of this story that we analyzed today are only a fraction of what's available out there. If you're interested, I suggest you read more for yourself.

We live in a good time for personal news analysis, even as the mainstream media stays strongly on the left of things. With a variety of online media and sources you can investigate for yourself, you have more options for news that at any time in American history. And if you follow these steps on any news item you find interesting, I think you have a good chance of finding a fair amount of the truth.

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