Barcelona attacks: The impact of spin in depicting human tragedy
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Barcelona attacks: The impact of spin in depicting human tragedy

August 19, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Barcelona vehicle attacks kill 14, injures more than 80

Three separate vehicle attacks took place in and near Barcelona, Spain, between Thursday afternoon and early Friday morning, killing 14 people and injuring more than 100. Police said they have arrested four people – three Moroccan citizens and one Spaniard – of ages ranging between 21 and 34. A search is underway for another suspect.

The first attack happened on Thursday at 4:50 p.m. local time when a white Fiat van drove down Las Ramblas – a central boulevard in Barcelona – and ran into pedestrians. Spanish media have cited police saying they are searching for a suspect named Moussa Oukabir, but they have not said whether he is believed to be the driver.

The Islamic State (IS) media outlet Amaq said the Barcelona attackers were “soldiers of the Islamic State.”  CNN reported that IS did not explicitly claim responsibility for the attacks and did not provide evidence for their claims.

About three hours after the Barcelona attack, a car drove into police officers at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Barcelona. No officers were killed and media reports said a man suffering knife wounds was found dead in the car. Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero said the incident was not linked to any of the other attacks.

The third incident happened Friday at 1:00 a.m., according to BBC, when an Audi A3 drove into a group of people in Cambrils, a seaside resort about 68 miles southwest of Barcelona. Emergency services said seven people were wounded and one woman died from her injuries. Five people exited the car and were killed by police. The men were wearing what appeared to be explosive vests that bomb teams discovered were fake when they performed controlled explosions to destroy them.

On Wednesday, an explosion at a house in Alcanar, a town 120 miles from Barcelona, killed one Spanish national, police said. Trapero said explosives were found at the house and police were “working on the hypothesis that” the Cambrils and Barcelona incidents “were being prepared in that house.”

A minute of silence took place at 12:00 p.m. local time on Friday and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced three days of national mourning.

Update: Moussa Oukabir was later named as one of the five attackers killed in Cambrils. Police are continuing to search for one unnamed suspect. (Source: BBC)

Distortion Highlights

  • The facts speak for themselves: three vehicle attacks left 14 dead and more than 100 wounded.
  • It’s almost impossible to imagine people purposefully doing such inhumane acts.
  • So, why add more drama and emotional charge to the coverage? What happens when media outlets spin the news?

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Day of Terror

    Spain’s Day of Terror: 14 Victims and Six Suspected Terrorists Dead After Multiple Attacks (Brietbart)

  • Sobering New Reality

    Largely spared the Islamic State attacks that have plagued Europe in recent years, Spaniards awoke Friday to a sobering new reality after a pair of vehicular assaults in Barcelona and a seaside resort town left 14 dead and scores wounded. (New York Times)

  • Horror

    Spain attacks: Huge manhunt after 14 die in 12 hours of horror (CNN)

    Las Ramblas reopened Friday morning but reminders of the previous day’s horror were all around. (CNN)

  • Carnage

    Carnage in Barcelona (CNN)

    “It was just a really, really horrific scene of immediate carnage,” he said. (CNN)

  • Shock

    Shock, fear in Barcelona (CNN)

    Some shocked residents and tourists had come to the normally bustling avenue to pay their respects to the attack victims. (CNN)

  • Mayhem

    But the police quickly descended, killing all five before they could commit any further mayhem. (New York Times)

  • Mowing Down

    The driver of the van fled on foot after mowing down tourists and locals on Las Ramblas. (BBC)

  • Most Troubling

    As the scope of the attacks began to emerge, perhaps the most troubling aspect was the apparent existence of a terrorist cell that coordinated the assailants’ actions that might, but for an accident while mixing chemicals for explosives, have been far more deadly. (New York Times)

The facts speak for themselves: three vehicle attacks left 14 dead and 100 or more wounded in Barcelona. Most of us cringe at the thought of something like this happening. It’s almost impossible to imagine people purposefully doing such inhumane actions. The Las Ramblas attacks are a tragedy for all humankind. So, why add more drama and emotional charge to the coverage? What happens when media outlets spin the news? Is there ever a downside? Let’s explore.

Below are a few examples of spun sentences from the four outlets The Knife analyzed. We’ve included each article’s overall spin rating for comparison, which shows how much of the article is data-based and how much of it contains dramatic language. Spin words are highlighted in red.

  • Largely spared the Islamic State attacks that have plagued Europe in recent years, Spaniards awoke Friday to a sobering new reality…” (The New York Times, 42 percent spun)
  • “Spain attacks: Huge manhunt after 14 die in 12 hours of horror” (CNN, 42 percent spun)
  • “A massive manhunt is under way in Spain for the man suspected of killing 13 people and injuring scores on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas on Thursday.” (BBC, 29 percent spun)
  • “Spain’s Day of Terror: 14 Victims and Six Suspected Terrorists Dead After Multiple Attacks” (Breitbart, 50 percent spun)

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 29% Spun

  • 42% Spun

  • 42% Spun

  • 50% Spun

When can spin be useful?

Opinion and spin can be valuable tools of expression. An opinion piece not only informs people about a specific subject matter, it also expresses unique perspectives on an issue. Opinion may be used to impress upon people particular viewpoints, allowing for the expression of a subjective experience. It’s a great tool, helping readers expand their worldview exponentially and form their own opinions.

Words that are subjective, vague and emotional (which The Knife refers to as spin words) allow for more nuanced expression; they are useful to convey the subtleties of personal experience. They also allow for more emotionality in a piece. So, spin is a valuable tool to convey opinion, and there should always be a place for it in media. The real problem with opinion—and spin—is when it is presented as fact.

When can spin detract?

News articles have a very specific purpose: they inform people in the most objective, data-based way about the world. News is different than opinion. It aims to be free of bias, and to not sway people in any direction. News articles should document history.

Unfortunately, the line between news and opinion has become permeable in the current media environment. Decades ago, this distinction was more strictly upheld in journalism. Nowadays, news articles are often editorialized, and the line between data and opinion is fuzzy. More often than not, as our ratings show, opinion is presented as news.

So what happens when spin finds its way into news? The news can take on elements of propaganda, dissuading critical thinking or an evaluation of alternative perspectives. Political and cultural bias is made more rigid. Fears are triggered, prejudice is fortified and communities become polarized.

When there are high levels of spin in the news, objectivity loses ground. The facts are key to building bridges in understanding between humans. When they are not easily identifiable, we erode our perception of objective reality as a mutual ground on which to meet.

Ideally, even the greatest of tragedies, such as the Barcelona attacks, could be covered by media in the most objective way possible. The lack of spin would not make the story less tragic or painful. But it could lay the foundation to find a resolution to conflict.

Read The Knife to be informed about the level of spin in your news coverage. If we are to better understand the world around us and solve our common problems, spin matters!

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Lined with cafes and bars, the street saw 14 killed and dozens more injured as that van drove at high speed, swerving to target people on foot, according to witnesses. (Breitbart)


According to Spanish authorities, 13 people died during the Las Ramblas attack in Barcelona and that number has remained consistent. The 14th death occurred during the Cambrils attack.

The police operation following the attacks is still active, with at least one attacker — named as Moussa Oukabir — known to be on the loose. (Breitbart)


Breitbart suggests Oukabir was a known attacker before the police had publicly made that determination, which may misrepresent his involvement. At the time Breitbart published its article, Oukabir was a suspect, but not confirmed to be one of the attackers.

Update: Oukabir was later identified as one of the five men killed during the Cambrils attack.

The ISIS media wing, Amaq, has said the Barcelona attackers were “soldiers of the Islamic State,” but didn’t explicitly claim responsibility for the attacks or provide evidence for their claims. (CNN)


Other media outlets said the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack. But as CNN points out, that’s not what the group explicitly said, and stating otherwise may be misleading. Does calling the attackers “soldiers of the Islamic State” necessarily mean IS coordinated the attack? Or could it be the attackers acted independently, and IS is making an after-the-fact judgement of their actions?

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • There is carnage, shock and fear in Barcelona.
  • IS is responsible for the attack in Barcelona.
  • There was an “apparent … terrorist cell” that coordinated all the attacks (The New York Times).
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • There was probably a range of responses to the attacks from fear and shock to courage and resolve. But the latter was largely unexplored, aside from The New York Times and CNN saying some people were chanting, “We are not afraid.”
  • IS called the attackers “soldiers of the Islamic State,” which doesn’t necessarily mean IS coordinated the attack. The attackers could have acted independently and IS could be calling them “soldiers” after-the-fact. Not enough information is provided to establish whether IS was directly responsible.
  • The connection between the Alcanar explosion and the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks is a hypothesis, not a proven fact. The New York Times acknowledges this, but not until after its conflicting suggestion that an “apparent…terrorist cell” coordinated the attacks.