The logic of what leaders say | The Knife Media

 AP Images and Shutterstock

AP Images and Shutterstock


(The Knife Media) When we analyzed the media coverage of Trump and the NFL over the weekend, we noticed a number of quotes that had questionable reasoning. When outlets quote leaders and other sources, and those quotes have flawed logic, it can influence how readers interpret the facts.

For this analysis, we selected four separate stories—some recent, some older—and analyzed the logic of statements made by leaders and companies ranging from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, from Roger Goodell to Uber. (To read background on each news event, see the Raw Data section below). Here they are:

1) Sept. 22: Trump criticized professional athletes who “disrespect” the American flag and national anthem (CNN)

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” President Donald Trump said.

  • There is both explicit and implied faulty reasoning in this quote. Explicitly, Trump’s opinion about what should be—e.g. players standing for the anthem—doesn’t following logically from facts about what is – players “making millions of dollars in the NFL” (see Hume’s Law).

  • Perhaps more problematic is Trump’s implication that “making millions of dollars in the NFL” means a player must show respect for the flag. The flaw is this: players’ “respect” for the country is separate from how much money they make, what sports league they play in, and whether or not they stand for the anthem.

Responding to Trump’s remarks, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”

  • Trump may have a “lack of respect” for the NFL, but his comments don’t necessarily “demonstrate” this. It’s misleading to take Trump’s criticism about a specific action and generalize it as a “lack of respect” for football, the NFL and all its players. Likewise, it’s possible to criticize players for kneeling during the anthem and still recognize the “good” that the “clubs and players represent.”

2) Sept. 22: London denies licence application to Uber (The Guardian)

Uber said in a statement the decision would “show the world that, far from being open, London is closed to innovative companies”.

  • The underlying logic here is:

  • Uber is an innovative company.

  • London is revoking Uber’s license.

  • Therefore, “London is closed to innovative companies.”

It doesn’t follow, does it?

3) Sept. 10: Hillary Clinton gives interview before her book release this month (Fox News)

“And then this speech [by Trump], a cry from the white nationalist gut,” Hillary Clinton said.

  • This is more of an opinion than a logical claim, but it hints at a conclusion that doesn’t follow from the facts. A ”white nationalist” is defined as “one of a group of militant whites who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation.” However, Trump didn’t say white people were superior or anything about racial segregation in his speech, so calling it “a cry from the white nationalist gut” implies a motive that doesn’t necessarily follow from what he said.  

4) April 16: US launched airstrikes on Syrian government air base (The New York Times)

“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed…As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies,” Trump said.

  • Previous failures to change Assad’s behavior may have contributed to the continuation of Syria’s refugee situation and civil war, but they aren’t the only factor. Assad and the other parties involved in the conflict have made choices that perpetuate the war, and may be more responsible for its continuation.

“The more we fail to respond to the use of [chemical] weapons, the more we begin to normalize their use,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said.

  • Although not explicitly stated, the implication here is if you don’t respond to the use of chemical weapons with force (i.e. an airstrike), you allow their use to become the norm, effectively condoning them. However, if you don’t want to condone something, it doesn’t necessitate any one particular response. There could be many, perhaps even non-violent, ways to respond that wouldn’t condone the use of chemical weapons. This quote may also imply that using force is necessary to stop the use of chemical weapons, but it’s possible that an airstrike may not prevent their use in the long run.

The issue isn’t necessarily that the outlets chose to include these quotes. There’s value to knowing what people said, no matter how misleading the quote may be, and especially if the statements are central to the news event. But what responsibility might the media have when including quotes like those above?

At times, outlets can contribute to or obscure faulty logic by adding flawed reasoning or misleading language of their own. Although we did not discuss it here, subjective language (spin) and one-sided reporting (slant) can support or mask the faulty logic of a quote. Furthermore, providing readers with facts from a diversity of viewpoints can also provide counter-evidence to some erroneous claims, or at least highlight weaknesses in a particular line of reasoning. Often, outlets don’t include such information.

News consumers also have a responsibility to build and apply critical thinking. We hope that the above analysis can help detect faulty reasoning.

Written by Shane Mottishaw and Julia Berry López

Edited by Shane Mottishaw and Jens Erik Gould

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