How to de-spin the North Korea coverage
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How to de-spin the North Korea coverage

November 29, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

North Korea fires intercontinental ballistic missile

Early Wednesday, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile. Japanese government officials said the missile flew for about 53 minutes. It traveled 620 miles (998 km), reaching a height of about 2,800 miles (4,506 km), before falling into the Sea of Japan, off the coast of Japan’s Aomori prefecture. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated the missile flew higher than any previous launch.

North Korea later confirmed the launch. Its state news agency KCNA said the missile “meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development.”

Japan’s Kyodo News had reported on Monday that the Japanese government detected radio signals suggesting that North Korea might be preparing for a missile launch. U.S. officials also reported “movement” in North Korea earlier this week that suggested preparation for a land-based missile, according to The Wall Street Journal.

South Korea’s military said it responded within six minutes of the launch with a “precision strike” missile exercise. The South Korean army, navy and air force each fired a missile simultaneously, including one with a 620-mile range (1000-km range), to demonstrate the South’s ability to hit a target the same distance as the North Korean launch site, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs said.

Both the South Korean and Japanese governments held national security council meetings in response to the launch. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also called for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on North Korea nine times since its first nuclear weapons test in 2006. Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, which he said may result in additional sanctions on North Korea and “related persons.”

In July of this year, North Korea claimed to have launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time. According to The New York Times, the first missile flew for about 37 minutes and the second flew for 47 minutes. Prior to Wednesday, North Korea’s most recent launch had taken place on Sept. 15, when it fired an intermediate-range missile that flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

For a brief timeline of the North Korean missile and nuclear program, click here.

Additional sources: CNN

Distortion Highlights

  • Do you want data or drama?
  • The coverage of North Korea’s latest missile launch has sensational language interspersed throughout.
  • This spin may be alarming to readers and it doesn’t help inform us about the situation.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Muted

    Mr. Trump’s reaction to the launch was more muted than in the past, when he lobbed insults at the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un and threatenedfire and fury” that would “totally destroy” the North. (The New York Times)

  • Pressure

    Trump has ramped up economic and diplomatic pressure on the North to prevent its development of a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the U.S. mainland. So far, the pressure has failed to get North Korea’s totalitarian government… to return to long-stalled international negotiations on its nuclear program. (AP)

    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan will not back down against any provocation and would maximize pressure on the North in its strong alliance with the U.S. (AP)

    Washington is applying what it calls “maximum pressure and sanctions” to stop North Korea from reaching the stage where it would be able to deliver a nuclear warhead on its ICBMs. (The New York Times)

  • Tensions

    North Korea abruptly ended a 10-week pause in its weapons testing Tuesday by launching what the Pentagon said was an intercontinental ballistic missile — apparently its longest-range test yet — a move that will escalate already high tensions with Washington. (AP)

    But despite an increase in tensions over the past two months… 74 days had passed without any missile launches by the North. (The Washington Post)

    … ending a more than two-month hiatus from Pyongyang and threatening to ramp up tensions with the U.S. and in the region. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Impressive

    So the distance traveled, while impressive, does not necessarily translate into a working intercontinental ballistic missile, much less one that could deliver a thermonuclear warhead. (The New York Times)

  • Robust

    South Korea responds to Pyongyang’s first launch since September with robust test-firing of surface, sea and air missiles (The Wall Street Journal)

    It triggered an unusually robust reaction from South Korea, which quickly responded with a battery of missile launches of its own. (The Wall Street Journal)

    Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said the new launch appeared to be the “most robust” ICBM test yet by the North Korea. (The New York Times)

  • Floated the idea

    U.S. officials have sporadically floated the idea of direct talks with North Korea if it maintained restraint. (AP)

  • Particularly provocative

    An intercontinental ballistic missile test is considered particularly provocative, and indications it flew higher than past launches suggest progress by Pyongyang in developing a weapon of mass destruction that could strike the U.S. mainland. (AP)

  • Long stalled

    So far, the pressure has failed to get North Korea’s totalitarian government, which views a nuclear arsenal as key to its survival, to return to long-stalled international negotiations on its nuclear program. (AP)

Media outlets reported on the North Korean missile launch using dramatic, opinion-based language. But the facts of the situation may be concerning enough on their own without any added drama. So, let’s strip away the spin.

Here are several sentences from the media coverage, with the spin marked in red. Below each, you’ll find a version with only facts. Compare them and consider how the spin affects the information. Which informs you better? Which alarms you more?

1. Tensions

With spin: North Korea fired an ICBM on Wednesday, “ending a more than two-month hiatus from Pyongyang and threatening to ramp up tensions with the U.S. and in the region.” (The Wall Street Journal)

The missile launch is “a move that will escalate already high tensions with Washington.” (Associated Press)

Without spin: North Korea fired an ICBM on Wednesday after ten weeks of not firing missiles.

AP and the Journal include dramatic and alarming language, and they don’t specify what the word “tensions” means.

2. Challenge and Defiance

With spin: “North Korea Fires a Ballistic Missile, in a Further Challenge to Trump” (The New York Times)

North Korea’s missile “def[ied] President Trump’s warnings to halt its weapons program.” (The New York Times)

Without spin: North Korea fired a ballistic missile. President Trump has told the country to stop, and if it doesn’t the U.S. would “destroy” the country.

It’s true that Trump has told North Korea to stop launching missiles, and it may be defying that order. But it’s the Times’ own interpretation to suggest this is definitely North Korea’s intent. The country could have reasons for the launch that are unrelated to the U.S. president. It would be more precise to just outline what has happened so far and what the exchanges have been between the countries.

3. Pressure

With spin: “So far, the pressure has failed to get North Korea’s totalitarian government, which views a nuclear arsenal as key to its survival, to return to long-stalled international negotiations on its nuclear program.” (AP)

Without spin: The U.N. and countries such as the U.S. have imposed sanctions on North Korea, and the North Korean government has not returned to international negotiations on its nuclear program.

What exactly does “pressure” mean here? The term is vague and could dramatize. It would be more informative to say exactly which actions were taken — such as sanctions — and what impact they’ve had.

As the Knife has pointed out before (such as here, here and here), spin in the news coverage of North Korea does not help us be better informed. The added drama may instead inspire more fear, distract from critical thinking and cloud our decision-making.   

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

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