Breaking down the slant in the coverage of the UK aid minister
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Breaking down the slant in the coverage of the UK aid minister

November 9, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

UK international development secretary Priti Patel resigns

Priti Patel resigned on Wednesday as the U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Development. In her resignation letter, Patel said that “in meeting with organizations and politicians during a private holiday in Israel” in August, her actions “fell below the standards of transparency and openness” that she has “promoted and advocated,” and that are “expected” of a secretary of state.

On Monday, Patel met with British Prime Minister Theresa May, and released a statement saying the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FOC) was informed of her Israel visit during, but not before, her trip. Patel then gave a list of 12 people and organizations she had met with, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Under standard protocol, private meetings of ministers with foreign officials are disclosed in advance, according to CNN.

On Tuesday, May’s office said Patel had two additional meetings with Israeli officials after the August trip, and that May’s office had not been informed of them in advance, according to The Guardian.

In her reply letter to Patel’s resignation, May said she was “glad to accept” Patel’s apology on Monday and “welcomed” her “clarification” about her trip to Israel. May added, “Now that further details have come to light, it is right that you have decided to resign and adhere to the high standards of transparency and openness that you have advocated.”

Patel submitted her letter of resignation after she flew from Kenya to meet with May on Wednesday at 10 Downing Street.

Patel remains a member of parliament (MP) affiliated with the Conservative and Unionist Party. She was elected to represent the town of Witham in May 2010. She served as Treasury minister from July 2014 to May 2015, employment minister from May 2015 to July 2016, and was appointed secretary of state for international development in July 2016. This latest role involved leading the ministerial team of the Department for International Development (DFID), and setting “the overall strategy and direction of the department” that “leads the UK’s work to end extreme poverty.”

According to The Guardian, May is expected to name a replacement for Patel on Thursday.

Distortion Highlights

  • The media slanted the coverage of Priti Patel’s resignation in four different ways.
  • Guess what? They all support the same perspective.
  • See how the slant works, and how it can limit our understanding of the story.

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

  • Uphill struggle

    The scandals are an unwelcome distraction at a time when May, who failed to win an overall majority in June’s general election, faces an uphill struggle in ongoing Brexit negotiations. (CNN)

  • Political storm

    UK government minister Priti Patel resigned Wednesday amid a political storm over her undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials. (CNN)

  • Further chaos

    Patel’s departure will throw May’s Conservative government into further chaos after the sudden resignation last week of Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who stood down after becoming embroiled in a growing Westminster sexual harassment scandal. (CNN)

  • Sense of instability

    The prime minister will now need to carry out another reshuffle that will create disruption and add to the sense of instability across Whitehall and Westminster as her minority government battles to retain control of the political agenda. (The Guardian)

  • Underlining her weakness

    It is the second resignation in May’s top team in a week, underlining her weakness at a time when she faces the complicated task of unravelling more than 40 years of ties with the European Union and holding a deeply divided party together. (Reuters)

  • All but hamstrung

    With Brexit talks all but hamstrung over how much Britain should pay to leave the European Union, opposition lawmakers and other critics are now openly questioning whether May can continue as prime minister. (Reuters)

  • Row

    She was ordered back from an official trip in Africa by the PM and summoned to Downing Street over the row. (BBC)

  • Under fire

    UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, pictured on October 31, is under fire for comments made about a British-Iranian woman in custody in Iran. (CNN, photo caption)

There are different ways to slant or bias information. But any way you cut it, it’s limiting because slant only shows you a part of the picture, not the whole. And it’s what we found in the coverage of Priti Patel’s resignation from her position as Britain’s aid minister.

Here are four ways the outlets we analyzed slanted the information, and how each can limit the way we understand and evaluate the news.

Implication

The bias in these articles is that Patel’s resignation reflects negatively on Prime Minister Theresa May and her abilities as a leader, but the outlets don’t substantiate it with data and they don’t provide alternate perspectives either. Without these things, it’s difficult to evaluate the accuracy of this point of view.

One way to create bias is through implication. Consider this subhead from The Guardian:

Theresa May loses second cabinet minister in a week as pro-Brexit international development secretary departs

If you compare it to our raw data, what’s the difference?

Priti Patel resigned on Wednesday as U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Development.

Even though The Guardian’s statement is data-based (meaning, it doesn’t contain spin), it brings our attention to two things: the prime minister, and the fact that it’s the second resignation in a week. This could suggest maybe May isn’t a good leader, or maybe there’s a problem with her government in general that these things are happening. Sound similar to the way the media reported on recent resignations in the Trump administration? It’s more or less the same.

How spin supports implication

Spin is a departure from the measurable facts — it’s language that’s vague, emotional or dramatic. As noted above, spin doesn’t always have to be present to create bias. In fact, The Guardian’s article was the least spun and the most slanted of the four. When spin is introduced, it can exacerbate the slant. Look at this statement from Reuters:

It is the second resignation in May’s top team in a week, underlining her weakness at a time when she faces the complicated task of unravelling more than 40 years of ties with the European Union and holding a deeply divided party together.

This takes The Guardian’s data-based implication and adds drama. The terms are subjective and not easily measured. For instance, how does Reuters measure May’s supposed “weakness” or the “depth” of her party’s “divisions”? Spin can create powerful impressions that aren’t backed by data.

Juxtaposition

CNN juxtaposes a series of recent events. Here’s our abridged version of that, using some of the spin the outlet included:

Patel’s resignation will throw May’s government into further chaos after the Defense Secretary resigned (he became embroiled in a growing Westminster sexual harassment scandal). Adding to the turmoil, Damian Green denied allegations that “extreme” pornographic material was found on his work computer. In another development, Wales’ former government minister was fired last week after undisclosed allegations about his conduct. He was found dead on Tuesday, possibly by suicide. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was forced to backtrack comments about an individual after an outcry from her family and other lawmakers.

When you put all this together it can seem the British government is falling apart. But CNN doesn’t specify how or whether these events are linked. Which brings us to…

Missing data

There’s no disputing that Patel’s resignation, as well as the others mentioned, will affect the U.K. government — these events didn’t happen in a vacuum. But where’s the data that supports the notion that the effects will only be negative? Is there information to the contrary? None of the outlets included this.

The outlets didn’t include data that might point to May’s success in leading the country or Brexit. They also didn’t portray May as a leader holding her subordinates accountable, which, considering the infraction, may be good. Such data could counter the supposed “political storm” CNN says May is facing, so omitting it serves to strengthen the outlet’s point of view.

As readers, we stand a better chance at accurately understanding an event if the reporting is data based and unbiased.

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

  • 43% Spun

  • 48% Spun

  • 53% Spun

  • 66% Spun

Fiction
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Fact

Reuters

“British aid minister Priti Patel was forced from office on Wednesday over undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials after Prime Minister Theresa May sought to reassert her diminished authority as she negotiates Brexit.”

Patel resigned on Wednesday after meetings with Israeli officials that didn’t follow FCO protocols. May is negotiating Brexit.

Reuters

“Patel’s meetings with Israeli officials, which May’s office said they were not aware of, and a reported visit to an Israeli army field hospital in the Golan Heights, have increased the pressure on the prime minister …”

May’s office said it was not aware of Patel’s meetings with Israeli officials. Patel reportedly visited an Israeli army field hospital in the Golan Heights.

The Guardian

“The prime minister will now need to carry out another reshuffle that will create disruption and add to the sense of instability across Whitehall and Westminster as her minority government battles to retain control of the political agenda.”

The prime minister, who leads a minority government, is expected to name a replacement for Patel on Thursday, according to The Guardian.

Fact Comparison

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

Patel’s meetings with Israeli officials, which May’s office said they were not aware of, and a reported visit to an Israeli army field hospital in the Golan Heights, have increased the pressure on the prime minister … (Reuters)


The four outlets mention a visit Patel made to the Golan Heights, a region in Southwestern Syria seized by the Israeli government in 1967 during the Six-Day War. However, Reuters doesn’t include why it could be problematic, other than Patel’s breach of protocol.

The other three outlets do include the fact that the U.K. and most of the international community don’t officially recognize Israel’s occupation of the territory. Including this information may clarify how Patel’s visit may pose problems for Britain’s foreign relations in the Middle East.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Dramatizes the resignation as a result of a “row” or quarrel.

Patel’s resignation may simply have been due to her not meeting a standard and May holding her accountable to it.

Implies that there was an intent to conceal, and possibly to deceive.

Patel said she reported her Israel trip meetings to the FCO while the trip was underway, not in advance as would have been standard protocol. Calling the trip “secret” could imply she hadn’t reported the meetings at all or that she had something to hide, possibly some wrongdoing, neither of which has been established.

Sensationalizes the resignation as a “test” for May, and a new one at that.

A prime minister’s responsibilities include, among other things, handling resignations from subordinates. This may not necessarily be a “test” of May’s authority or ability to lead, and if it is, it’s not supported with data.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • Priti Patel’s failure to get proper authorization for her meetings suggests she did something underhanded.
  • The back-to-back resignations of two cabinet members for inappropriate conduct, plus the allegations against other cabinet members, are damaging to the credibility of May and her government. This may impede her ability to successfully complete the Brexit negotiations.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Although she resigned and apologized for not adhering to protocol, it doesn’t necessarily indicate an intent to deceive. There has been no indication that she violated any legal standards, only that she didn’t follow protocol. Further investigation could reveal errors in the reporting process or other explanations for the communication failures.
  • The resignations and allegations may not negatively affect the Brexit process or May’s ability to lead. Arguably, May holding Patel accountable for her actions is an important leadership skill and could add to her credibility, and the allegations remain under investigation; any wrongdoing is still unproven. Similarly, aside from the accusations, the officials who resigned may have done a good job while in office.