From caution to fear: How spin shapes the latest media coverage on North Korea
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From caution to fear: How spin shapes the latest media coverage on North Korea

July 4, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

North Korea says it successfully test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile

On Tuesday, North Korea’s state media said it had successfully launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). An ICBM is a land-based projectile that can travel more than 5,600 km carrying a nuclear warhead. North Korea claimed the missile on Tuesday flew for about 39 minutes, reaching an altitude of 2,802 km and travelling a distance of 933 km from the launch site.

U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials said the missile, fired at 9:40 a.m. from Banghyeon, North Pyongan province, flew for about 40 minutes, reaching an altitude of 2,500 km and travelling a distance of about 930 km, before landing in waters off the coast of Japan. In contrast, Russia’s Defense Ministry said its missile warning system recorded and tracked the missile flying at an altitude of 510 km and travelling 535 km. According to Fox News, if reports are accurate, Tuesday’s launch breaks the previous record, a May 14 test that lasted 30 minutes.

North Korea’s nuclear missile development

Under U.N. National Security resolutions, North Korea is banned from having a nuclear weapons program, and has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 for its continuing development of nuclear and ballistic missiles.

Its most recent missile test on May 14 involved a ballistic missile that reached an altitude of 2,000 km and traveled a distance of approximately 700 km, according to officials from Japan and South Korea. North Korea has also performed five nuclear tests, the most recent in September of last year.

Distortion Highlights

  • Recent coverage of North Korea suggests its military activities could pose a threat to other countries, and Tuesday’s test may represent a greater risk.
  • But how much of this is based on data?
  • The media can inform readers about North Korea in a way that builds awareness and caution, and ideally it does so without propagating fear. Read more below.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

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

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Provocation

    The provocation coincided with a summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which they called for a resolution of the drawn-out nuclear standoff on the peninsula through dialogue. (Korean Herald)

  • Game-changing

    It will be difficult to confirm many of the details of the Hwasgon-APTime launch, but if it is determined to be an ICBM test then it could be a potential game-changing development in what may be the world’s most dangerous nuclear standoff and a direct rebuke to President Trump. (Fox News)

  • Heated rhetoric

    In typically heated rhetoric, North Korea’s Academy of Defense Science said the test of an ICBM — the Hwasong-APTime — marked the “final step” in creating a “confident and powerful nuclear state that can strike anywhere on Earth.” (AP)

  • Most Suspicious

    North Korea’s weapons program is perhaps the most closely held state secret in one of the world’s most suspicious nations. (AP)

  • Rogue

    North Korea has had a number of ICBMs under test, according to the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins and the media is widely reporting that the rogue state used a Hwasong-APTime in today’s exercise. (TIME)

    North Korea claimed to have successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile in a launch Tuesday, marking what the rogue regime called the “final step” in creating a “powerful nuclear state that can strike anywhere on Earth.” (Fox News)

  • Hermit kingdom

    North Korea claimed Tuesday to have successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time, a development which if true represents a significant advance in the hermit kingdom’s missile program. (TIME)

  • Big Deal

    North Korea Says It’s Tested an ICBM. Here’s Why That’s a Big Deal (TIME)

  • Dealt A Blow

    The test, which marks the sixth missile launch since Moon took office, dealt a blow to his vision for reconciliation with the Kim Jong-un regime through a restart of dialogue for a halt in its nuclear and missile tests. (Korean Herald)

One of the challenges in educating children is teaching them to be aware and cautious of real dangers, without also teaching them to be afraid. While fear can be a useful tool, it can also impair logical reasoning and limit the way we respond to situations and solve problems, as a recent psychological study shows. And, just as adults have a type of earned authority with children, the media has one with readers. This is why, in part, it’s problematic for outlets to introduce drama or alarmism while covering the news.

Because some readers believe what they read without question, and outlets don’t explicitly distinguish between data and opinion, information that isn’t tested with objective, scientific reasoning can be consumed the same way as information that is.

Our sample of the coverage of North Korea’s latest missile launch provides such an example. The four outlets we analyzed report what’s known about the launch thus far, but they also insert language that spins the situation from being an event that’s currently being assessed, to being a rising threat or, what TIME calls, “a big deal.” Examining a single statement from each article can elucidate the distortion. When you read the four statements below (the spin terms are noted in red), how do you feel about the situation?

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

  • 42% Spun

  • 47% Spun

  • 48% Spun

  • 59% Spun

North Korea on Tuesday claimed it successfully test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile, a potential game-changing development in what may be the world’s most dangerous nuclear standoff and, if true, a direct rebuke to U.S. President Donald Trump’s earlier declaration that such a test “won’t happen!” (The Associated Press)

North Korea claimed it carried out a successful test of an intercontinental ballistic test on Tuesday, heralding a sweeping shift in the regional security landscape and posing a critical test for President Moon Jae-in’s pursuit of denuclearization dialogue.  (Korea Herald)

The launch sends a political warning to Washington and its chief Asian allies, Seoul and Tokyo, while also allowing North Korean scientists a chance to perfect their still-incomplete nuclear missile program. (AP and Fox News)

Here’s what to know about ICBMs, and why a successful test would be such a big deal. (TIME)

Now, North Korea may pose a real threat to its neighbors, as well as to the U.S. and other countries. Its antagonistic attitude seems to point in that direction; there’s no denying that. Look at the North’s reported statement about this latest launch, saying it’s a “final step” in creating a “powerful nuclear state that can strike anywhere on Earth.”

However, we say North Korea “may pose” a threat because, on the other side of the argument, there’s a lot of missing data. The media provides estimates, expert opinions and educated guesses as to North Korea’s military and nuclear capabilities, but it seems that, outside of North Korea’s government, no one has conclusive evidence about it yet. (You can find a summary about what the media says we know of Tuesday’s launch in our Raw Data, and a documented summary of North Korea’s military and nuclear activities in our Timeline.)

That’s the principal limitation of data. In other words, when scientists document an experiment, they note the limitations of data and measurements (for example, an experiment on natural irrigation might note the days there was no precipitation). In this case, the outlets don’t qualify their reports by making the limitation explicit. In other words, they don’t inform readers that, although certain hypotheses exist, they don’t know enough about North Korea’s military capabilities, so their coverage may be incomplete or inaccurate.

Going back to the metaphor, in any educational setting — be it adults teaching children, or the media informing readers — it’s best done with data because, given our collective knowledge and scientific thinking, that’s all we have and all we can test in an objective way. That is, adults can guide children by informing them that playing with fire may be destructive, because of x-, y- and z- consequences, without necessarily inspiring fears or phobias about fire.

Similarly, news outlets could report about North Korea using the known facts, pointing out the limitations of data, and sticking to that. Any additional dramatic representations or hypotheticals that aren’t backed by data may simply inspire fear and alarm, which could impair or suspend critical evaluation. In times like these, with situations like North Korea’s missile tests, ideally the media can empower readers with objective reporting that leads to awareness, critical thinking and rational caution, but not fear.

Fiction
or
Fact

Associated Press

“North Korea on Tuesday claimed it successfully test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile … if true, a direct rebuke to U.S. President Donald Trump’s earlier declaration that such a test ‘won’t happen!’”

“North Korea on Tuesday claimed it successfully test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile.” (We just dropped the rest of AP’s statement.)

The Korean Herald

“North Korea claimed it carried out a successful test of an intercontinental ballistic test on Tuesday, heralding a sweeping shift in the regional security landscape and posing a critical test for President Moon Jae-in’s pursuit of denuclearization dialogue …”

North Korea reportedly made this claim, but that’s about it.

Fact Comparison

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

North Korea has had a number of ICBMs under test, according to the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins. (TIME)


If people assume the most recent missile test is what AP calls “a major step in developing nuclear-armed missiles that could reach anywhere in the United States,” noting the previous ICBM tests may place the July 3 missile launch into a greater historical perspective (see the Timeline section).

For example, according to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), North Korea’s Taepodong-2 (TD-2), which was first tested in 2006 for launching satellites, is capable of being configured as an ICBM. North Korea’s TD-2, Hwasong-13 and Hwasong-14 missiles are considered ICBMs, according to a report by NASIC. As a result, the launch of the Hwasong-14 may not be any more or less significant than previous advancements in North Korea’s arsenal.

Headlines

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

Juxtaposes the missile test with the G20 summit, which may imply North Korea’s test is a timed message or provocation to G20 members.

However, it’s not clear what relation, if any, the missile test has with the G20 summit.

Simplifies a complex political situation. By focusing on Trump’s comment, it may imply China ultimately has the power, maybe even the responsibility, to end North Korea’s missile program.

China is North Korea’s main trade partner and, as such, has the ability to change the nature of the relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean China could affect the missile program through the trade relationship. And even if it could, it doesn’t mean it “should.”

Dramatizes the news by saying the claim will “likely … raise alarm” in Tokyo and Anchorage. Maybe it will, but it’s possible the media suggesting the claim will be alarming may cause more alarm than the claim itself, especially if readers don’t weigh the headline against a greater context.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • North Korea’s reported missile test is a “game-changing” development or “sweeping shift” showing that the North is a serious threat. It might try to use a nuclear weapon against its neighbors or the U.S.
  • The world needs to apply more sanctions, use military force or do something to stop North Korea from developing more weapons of mass destruction.
  • The North’s latest test throws a wrench, so to speak, in South Korean President Moon’s diplomatic outreach to the North. (Korea Herald)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • The analysis of the test launch is preliminary, and we don’t have independent verification of all the technology and weaponry that North Korea has. We haven’t accurately assessed the level of threat North Korea could pose.
  • The international sanctions thus far haven’t deterred North Korea’s military development. Perhaps it’s a sign that the approaches thus far aren’t working, and that the international community might be more successful if it reevaluates its approach.
  • Not all options for diplomacy have been exhausted. It’s possible South Korea may yet negotiate a truce with its northern neighbor.

Timeline