The coverage of Trump’s visit to Poland: a hybrid of spin and cherry-picked information
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The coverage of Trump’s visit to Poland: a hybrid of spin and cherry-picked information

July 6, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump and Polish president Duda hold joint press conference; Trump speaks on North Korea

On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda held a joint press conference in Warsaw, Poland, in which Trump spoke about North Korea, among other subjects.

Referring to Tuesday’s missile launch, Trump said North Korea had exhibited “very, very bad behavior,” and that he was considering “some pretty severe things in response,” adding that it “doesn’t mean we’re going to do them.” Trump declined to specify which responses he was contemplating, and whether they include military options.

On Tuesday, North Korea test fired an intercontinental ballistic missile. Analysts stated the missile was capable of reaching Alaska, and possibly Hawaii, if fired at optimal trajectory. On Wednesday, the U.S. and South Korea conducted a joint missile exercise off the east coast of South Korea. Also on Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told a U.N. Security Council meeting that the U.S. would propose new U.N. sanctions against North Korea in coming days.

Later on Thursday, Trump gave a speech in Warsaw’s Krasinski Square, in which he talked about what Poland and the U.S. have in common, including values like “freedom and sovereignty,” and the fight against militant groups like IS.

Trump is scheduled to travel to Hamburg, Germany, on Thursday night for a two-day G20 Summit. During the summit, Trump is scheduled to meet with Russia’s President Putin, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and China’s President Xi Jinping.

Distortion Highlights

  • Depending on the outlet you read, you might think Thursday’s news conference in Poland was exclusively about North Korea. It wasn’t.
  • Two of the outlets we analyzed omitted almost any other information discussed there.
  • The coverage may keep readers in the dark about the Warsaw visit, as well as promote more alarm about North Korea.

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

  • Sore point

    The fact that thousands of U.S. troops are still stationed in South Korea is a sore point for the Chinese, which would rather not have the American military at their doorstep. (The Washington Post)

  • Squeeze into submission

    Over the years, Trump has said again and again that China is the key to squeezing the regime into submission. (The Washington Post)

  • Clamp down

    His frustration that Beijing has not done more to clamp down on North Korea prompted him to tweet on Wednesday: “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. (Reuters)

  • Rein in

    Military reprisal by the U.S. carries risks, and Mr. Trump has sought other avenues to choke off North Korea’s nuclear program—notably, persuading China to use its influence to rein in Pyongyang. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Bullied

    American experts on China and North Korea said they saw little hope that the Trump administration’s pressure tactics would succeed with Mr. Xi, who does not want to be seen as bullied by the United States. (The New York Times)

  • Very, very dangerous

    At a joint news conference with his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, Mr. Trump said that North Korean leaders were “behaving in a very, very dangerous manner and something will have to be done about it.” (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Battle

    The propaganda battle between the Koreas escalated on Wednesday, even as Asian stock markets appeared to shrug off the latest tensions. (The New York Times)

    Mr. Trump later held a speech in front of thousands of Poles in which he cast the U.S. and Poland as waging a common battle in defense of Western civilization. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Invective

    The United States toughened its military pressure and invective against nuclear-armed North Korea on Wednesday, conducting a missile maneuver with South Korea, hinting of a possible return to war with the North and proposing wider United Nations sanctions against “any country that does business with this outlaw regime.” (The New York Times)

  • Threat

    Trump pledges to act on North Korean threat (Reuters)

    It’s not that China does not care about the North Korean threat — it does — but that it sees it differently, analysts said. (The Washington Post)

    Trump Considers ‘Severe Things’ Over North Korea Threat (The Wall Street Journal)

On Tuesday, The Knife published an analysis of how some media reports dramatized North Korea’s latest missile launch. On Wednesday, a separate analysis on the upcoming G20 summit showed how some media outlets omitted the main news (the summit itself) in favor of items of greater sensational value (possible protests). Thursday’s coverage of Trump’s press conference with Poland’s president features a hybrid of both types of distortion.

The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Reuters quoted Trump speaking at the news conference, but focused only on his comments about North Korea, and said very little or nothing about his other remarks. They also didn’t mention his prior meetings with Duda or the leaders of the Three Seas Initiative. In fact, the outlets’ headlines (displayed in The Numbers section above) might suggest the news event was entirely about North Korea.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the coverage:

  • The Washington Post describes the recent North Korean missile launch, possible complexities of negotiating the situation with Russia and China (the North’s main trading partner) and other related events, like a Wednesday emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The Post cites some of what Trump said about the Korean Peninsula. What information did the outlet include about the trip to Poland? Literally, just the phrase, “In Warsaw.” So, unless readers have prior knowledge of Trump’s visit, they may not understand how Warsaw relates to the rest of the information.
  • The Wall Street Journal also covers the same North Korea-related comments as the Post, with the exception of information about the U.N. Security Council meeting. However, the Journal did mention the joint news conference, that Trump was in Poland “for a series of meetings” (without expanding on it), and citing some of his points from his public speech in Warsaw, which occurred later. The Journal also said he fielded questions about the Russia investigation in the U.S.

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

  • 58% Spun

  • 74% Spun

  • 75% Spun

  • 84% Spun

Comparable to Tuesday’s analysis, these reports also dramatize the North Korean situation with spin and slant. See the Top Spin Words section for examples of spin. As for slant, the articles include more information that may point to a possible armed conflict compared to information that doesn’t.

And, as mentioned above, the articles include little to no information about Trump’s activities in Poland, which is also an issue of slant. Here’s what our researchers found about the visit, none of which was included in the Post or Journal.

  • Visit with the Three Seas Initiative: According to The New York Times, the initiative is a “joint Polish-Croatian project … with the aim of strengthening trade, infrastructure, energy and political co-operation among countries bordering the Adriatic, the Baltic and the Black Sea.” According to a White House press release, Trump said Poland and the surrounding region has “special significance” to him because his wife is from Slovenia. During the meeting, he reportedly said the initiative could seek energy supplies from the U.S., adding that the country “will never use energy to coerce your nations, and we cannot allow others to do so. You don’t want to have a monopoly or a monopolistic situation. The United States is firmly committed to open, fair, and competitive markets for global energy and trade.”
  • Joint press conference with President Duda: According to a White House video of the event, the two leaders made statements about their private conversations relating to bilateral support, alliances, infrastructure and military and security contracts. Aside from his comments about North Korea, Trump said nations face the “threat” of “terrorism” from groups like IS. They also discussed the Syrian conflict, saying the use of chemical weapons must not be tolerated. Trump said the two leaders would work together to expand commerce between the two nations, and that he wished to build “reciprocal trade relationships” with Three Seas Initiative countries. Trump also fielded questions about the U.S. media and press freedom, energy contracts, American military cooperation in the region, and the Russia investigation.

Reporting on developments involving the Korean Peninsula is both relevant and necessary. However, to dedicate most of the coverage to North Korea in a way that may further promote alarm, while omitting most information about Trump’s trip to Poland and meeting with Duda, may do readers a disservice. It’s the difference between comprehensive reporting and presenting spun, cherry-picked information.

Fiction
or
Fact

The New York Times

“The United States toughened its military pressure and invective against nuclear-armed North Korea on Wednesday, conducting a missile maneuver with South Korea, hinting of a possible return to war with the North and proposing wider United Nations sanctions against ‘any country that does business with this outlaw regime.’”

The U.S. and South Korea conducted a joint missile exercise off the South Korean east coast on Wednesday. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. said the U.S. would propose greater sanctions against North Korea in the coming days. She also said the U.S. would use “considerable military forces” if necessary, but that “We prefer not to have to go in that direction.”

The Washington Post

“Yet efforts to find consensus among world powers appeared to hit a wall — sharply limiting Trump’s options.”

None

Fact Comparison

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

Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said in Hamburg on Thursday that Beijing would implement all sanctions imposed on North Korea as a result of its missile tests. Meeting in Germany ahead of a G20 summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that China supported the new South Korean government’s efforts to restart dialogue and contacts with the North, and that all sides should abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions, the state news agency Xinhua said. (Reuters)


The New York Times and The Washington Post note China’s opposition to U.S. efforts, implying China doesn’t want to be involved or won’t act against its interests with North Korea. The Post writes, “new sanctions would have little effect unless backed by China, which is the North’s financial lifeline,” while the Times says, “U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley did not specifically threaten China, but she emphasized that 90 percent of North Korea’s trade is with the Chinese and that ‘much of the burden of enforcing U.N. sanctions rests with China.’”

If China doesn’t endorse the Trump administration’s approach, does it mean the country isn’t working towards solving the problem? The statements Reuters provides from China’s president and finance minister may give readers a better understanding of the country’s formal position on North Korea: China agrees with the U.N., it agrees with South Korea’s approach and it has its own strategy as well.

After commenting about “severe” actions against North Korea, Mr. Trump added: “That doesn’t mean we’re going to do them … I think we will just take a look at what happens over the coming weeks and months with respect to North Korea.” (The Wall Street Journal)


The Washington Post doesn’t include the above information. Instead, it focuses on certain aspects of Trump’s comments, writing, “Trump said the United States was considering ‘some pretty severe things’ in response to what he called ‘very, very bad behavior’ from the North … ‘Something will have to be done about it,’ he said.” Selectively choosing from his remarks doesn’t give people the whole story.

More importantly, focusing on the possibility of “severe things” without mentioning Trump’s conclusion that “we’ll just take a look at what happens” could suggest military action is probable. In context, Trump’s comments may be considered diplomatic. He says he doesn’t agree with the North’s actions, but is willing to weigh the situation over weeks or months. That may sound different from only saying “severe things” need to be done.

Headlines

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

Possibly misleading, because the headline isolates part of a quote.

This headline could give the impression that the only outcome with the North involves “severe things.” While Trump did say this phrase, outlets could qualify it by noting in the headline that he wasn’t specific about what it means. Or, they could include the other part of his statement: “That doesn’t mean we’re going to do them.”

Could imply the U.S. will definitely take action against North Korea, possibly militarily or otherwise.

Doesn’t say that maybe it won’t.

By presenting only a part of what Trump reportedly said and omitting any information to the contrary, this headline suggests the U.S. will definitely “act.” That’s not what Trump said. He said that while he was considering “some pretty severe things in response,” it “ doesn’t mean we’re going to do them.”

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • Trump is going to limit the “threat” posed by North Korea by taking military action or issuing more economic sanctions against the country.  
  • The upcoming G20 meetings will be tense considering the Russia investigation in the U.S., Germany’s reported disapproval of the U.S. exit from the Paris accord, and recent U.S. efforts to encourage China to take a more active stance against North Korea.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • There may be other ways to resolve the issue. The Washington Post reports that Russia and China presented a “double suspension” plan, which calls for ending U.S.-South Korea military exercises in exchange for the North’s nuclear disarmament, but the other three outlets don’t include this alternative. Only Reuters mentions that Chinese President Xi also supports South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to restart dialogue with North Korea, which is another diplomatic avenue. There may be others that these articles don’t explore.  
  • It’s not uncommon for meetings between heads of state to have disputes or even, as the media reports, to be “tense.” The media doesn’t make this explicit, and doesn’t contextualize why this summit’s challenges may be different from past similar events. The outlets also don’t mention that it’s possible no official change in policy towards North Korea, or in bilateral relations between these countries, may result from the G20.