Catalonia’s referendum: how the media sensationalizes conflict and violence
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Catalonia’s referendum: how the media sensationalizes conflict and violence

October 2, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

At least 893 people injured during Catalonia’s referendum protests

Catalonia – a semi-autonomous region of Spain – held an independence referendum on Sunday. A Catalan government spokesperson said 2.2 million of the region’s 5.3 million eligible voters (42 percent) cast ballots, with about 90 percent of votes in favor of independence from Spain. Spanish courts had ruled the referendum was unconstitutional and the national police were ordered to prevent the vote. Physical conflict between law enforcement and protesters resulted in at least 893 civilians injured as of Monday, according to the Catalan Health Ministry. Thirty-three police officers were also reported injured.

According to media reports, police used batons and rubber bullets against protesters in Catalonia’s regional capital of Barcelona on Sunday. Media outlet El País said crowds threw objects at the police. In the province of Girona, police entered a polling station and forcibly removed voters, according to BBC.

In early September, Catalonia’s regional government called the referendum on secession from Spain for Oct. 1. Spain’s Constitutional Court declared the referendum illegal, and the Spanish government in Madrid ordered the national police and Guardia Civil, a paramilitary force, to confiscate ballots and close down polling stations. Prior to the referendum, Spanish police confiscated ballot materials and fined Catalan officials. The Spanish government reported 92 of about 2,300 polling stations had been closed and the rest stayed open.

Catalan government spokesperson Jordi Turull alleged that voters were deterred by police action, and estimated up to 770,000 votes were lost at polling stations due to police involvement.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he was open to a discussion of Sunday’s events within the legal system. On Monday, the Spanish government said it was discussing its response with the opposition parties in Spain.

Additional source: CNN, The Guardian.

Distortion Highlights

  • It’s reasonable that media outlets would report both qualitative and quantitative information
  • But the coverage of the referendum goes beyond facts and adds sensationalism
  • Read on to learn the difference between fact-based and sensational coverage

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

  • Deepest Constitutional Crisis

    The referendum, declared illegal by Spain’s central government, has pitched the country into its deepest constitutional crisis in decades and deepened a centuries-old rift between Madrid and Barcelona. (Reuters)

  • Descended Into Chaos

    Catalonia’s defiant attempt to stage an independence referendum descended into chaos on Sunday, with hundreds injured in clashes with police in one of the most serious tests of Spain’s democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s. (The New York Times)

  • Cat and Mouse

    The vote took place anyway in an atmosphere of cat and mouse and in improvised conditions, with a disputed census used as the voting list. (The New York Times)

  • Surreal

    Over the course of the referendum, the day turned almost surreal. (The New York Times)

  • Erupts

    Violence erupts as Catalans vote on split from Spain (Reuters)

  • Steady Drumbeat

    Voters like him made the turnout an extraordinary show of determination in the face of a steady drumbeat of threats from Madrid. (The New York Times)

  • In Shock

    With Spain and much of the world in shock at images that were unprecedented in recent Spanish history, Rajoy said that the rule of law has prevailed… (El País)

  • Smashed

    In Girona, riot police smashed their way into a polling station where Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was due to vote, and forcibly removed those looking to place their ballots. (BBC)

    In a town in Girona province where Catalan leader Puigdemont was due to vote, Civil Guard police smashed glass panels to open the door and search for ballot boxes. (Reuters)

  • Cautiously

    Markets have reacted cautiously but calmly to the situation so far, though credit rating agency S&P said on Friday that protracted tensions could hurt Spain’s economic outlook. (Reuters)

The facts of the Catalan referendum (which you can read in our Raw Data) provide a specific, precise depiction of the violence and conflict that occurred during the vote. And while this information came from the articles we analyzed, the outlets went beyond facts and used language that may provoke excitement, fear or anger amongst readers, potentially at the expense of accuracy. This is the definition of sensationalism, and it can influence readers’ thoughts, feelings or opinions about a subject.

To demonstrate this, consider the following excerpts from the articles. Sensational, subjective or vague language (spin) is highlighted in red.

Sensational: “Catalonia’s defiant attempt to stage an independence referendum descended into chaos on Sunday, with hundreds injured in clashes with police…” (The New York Times)

Factual: “Catalan emergency officials say 761 [now 893] people have been injured as police used force to try to block voting in Catalonia’s independence referendum…Police used batons and fired rubber bullets.” (BBC)

How do your thoughts and feelings for the first sentence compare to the second one? Does each sentence give you a different impression?

Here’s another example:

Sensational: “The referendum…has pitched the country into its deepest constitutional crisis in decades and deepened a centuries-old rift between Madrid and Barcelona.” (Reuters)

Factual: “Catalonia…has its own language and culture. It also has a high degree of autonomy, but is not recognised as a separate nation under the Spanish constitution.” (BBC).

Does “constitutional crisis” or “centuries-old rift” give you a precise understanding of the conflict between Catalonia and Spain? Probably not.

It’s reasonable that media outlets would report both quantitative (e.g. numbers and statistics) and qualitative information (e.g. people’s experiences), especially when covering topics of violence and conflict. But don’t facts like police firing rubber bullets and 893 civilians being injured speak for themselves? There are also more precise ways to describe the qualities of the conflict than using words like “chaos” and “crisis.” For example, outlets could report how people’s lives were affected and how these events may influence Catalonia’s political, social and economic circumstances. Some of the articles we analyzed partially did this, but it was obscured by subjective and vague language.

Perhaps more important is how words like “chaos” and “crisis” could sensationalize violence and conflict. Using them may provoke fear or anger in readers, which can interfere with critical thinking, tolerance and conflict resolution. This is where the media can play a beneficial role. Fact-based reporting may not single-handedly prevent conflict and violence, but it could promote awareness, understanding and critical thinking instead of fear, narrow viewpoints and polarization.

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

  • 23% Spun

  • 49% Spun

  • 64% Spun

  • 81% Spun


The New York Times

“The Catalan vote has been watched with rising trepidation — and no sign of support — by a European Union wary of stoking forces of fragmentation already tugging at the bloc and many member states, where populist and nationalist parties have surged in recent elections.”

In a press release on Monday, the EU said the referendum was not legal under the Spanish constitution, and that it was an “internal” matter for Spain. The EU also called for “unity and stability,” not “fragmentation.”

Fact Comparison

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

Mr Rajoy says the vote goes against the constitution, which refers to “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”. (BBC)

BBC is the only outlet to provide details as to why the independence referendum may go against Spain’s constitution; the other outlets don’t provide such reasons.

This information may help readers understand why the court ruled in favor of Spain. If the constitution calls for “indissoluble unity,” then at least one interpretation of the law could mean territories can’t separate from the nation. See the Context section for additional constitutional information.


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

Favors a pro-Spain viewpoint.

This is potentially the first thing a person reads and already the coverage is biased – it focuses on the government’s point-of-view and may suggest Catalonia is to blame. Catalonia played a role in the conflict, but are there other sides to the story?

Favors an anti-Spain viewpoint.

This headline is biased too, but in the opposite way from El País  – it focuses on blaming Spain instead of Catalonia. Depending on what articles people read, they may get a different impression of which side is more to blame based on an article’s slant, not facts.

Could misrepresent the amount of support for independence.

According to the Catalan government, 42 percent of eligible voters (2.2 million people) cast ballots; 90 percent of those votes were in support of secession. However, it’s possible that of the 58 percent that didn’t vote, a high percentage of them chose not to because they thought the referendum was unconstitutional and therefore illegitimate. Therefore the percentage of eligible voters who voted yes may not accurately represent the general support amongst Catalans.


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

The media’s slant:
  • The Spanish Government and the police were unjustified in their use of force to stop the referendum. (BBC, Reuters, The New York Times)
  • The Spanish government’s use of force was justified to uphold the law and prevent the illegal vote. (El País)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Only BBC mentions the vote didn’t adhere to international standards and explains why the independence referendum may go against Spain’s constitution (see Fact Comparison and Context for more information).
  • What’s mostly missing in the coverage is how the referendum and the Spanish government’s actions might influence the social, economic and political environment in Catalonia and the rest of the country.
  • Minimal background information is provided on why some Catalans want independence, or why the government is opposed (other than it is unconstitutional). Again, see Context for more information.


Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

What’s Catalonia’s history?

Catalonia is a region in the northeast of Spain. People of the region speak their own native language of Catalan, though many also speak Spanish. Its population is about 7.5 million of Spain’s total 46.5 million.

Catalonia joined with Spain in the 15th century, when a royal marriage consolidated the regions. It had full autonomy, or self-governance, from Spain between the 15th and 18th centuries, and again in 1932, according to Britannica. When Gen. Francisco Franco took power in 1939, he revoked the region’s autonomy and restricted the use of the Catalan language.

After Gen. Franco’s death in 1975, the region reintroduced a democratic system and ratified a new constitution in 1978 that restored autonomy to Catalonia and other Spanish territories.

What autonomy does the 1978 constitution provide?

The constitution is based on “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards,” and “recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all.”

The constitution allows a “self-governing” community to draft a “Statute of Autonomy” that essentially outlines its governmental system. Once completed, Spain’s legislature establishes the statute as an Act under law.

The following is a partial list of what the constitution provides for “self-governing communities”:

  • The ability to organize their institutions of “self-government.”
  • “Respect and protection” for their culture and languages.
  • The protection of the community’s monuments, museums, etc.
  • The recognition of various regional flags and symbols.
  • The “management of their respective interests.”
  • And the ability to craft rules and legislation on issues such as:
    • Immigration.
    • Labor relations.
    • Copyright and industrial property.
    • Foreign trade, customs.
    • Energy production, mining.
    • The organization of press, media and telecommunications
    • The manufacture/sale of arms, explosives.
    • Housing.
    • Social assistance.

Any rules or legislation drafted by the “self-governing” community cannot violate Spain’s constitution.

Why does Catalonia want an independence vote?

Media outlets suggest two main reasons for the referendum:

1. Influence by pro-independence politicians, such as regional President Carles Puigdemont, who say Catalonia has given Spain more than it’s received, according to The Guardian.

2. The Spanish court’s 2010 decision to annul certain sections of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, which was ratified by Spain’s government in 2006, but later contested in court by members of Spain’s “Popular Party.”

What recent efforts has Catalonia made toward independence?

After the court’s 2010 decision (see above), Catalonia’s then-President Artur Mas said he would call for an independence referendum if his party won a majority in the regional election. After his party won, it held an independence referendum in 2014. The referendum passed, with support from about 81 percent of those who voted, though the court ruled the 2014 vote was non-binding.

In March 2017, the Catalan high court banned Mas from holding public office for two years for “defying the constitutional court” by going ahead with the referendum. He was also fined 36,500 euros (about $42,875). Mas plans to appeal the verdict.

When Puigdemont was elected as Catalonia’s president in 2015, he said he’d bring a “binding” independence referendum to a vote. That vote took place on Oct. 1. The Spanish constitutional court ruled that referendum was also illegal.