Fighting IS in Raqqa: When media includes the bigger picture
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Fighting IS in Raqqa: When media includes the bigger picture

October 18, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Syrian forces recapture Raqqa from IS

On Tuesday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said it had recaptured Raqqa, Syria, from Islamic State (IS) forces after over three years of occupation. A spokesman for SDF said the military operations, led by a group of Syrian Kurds and Arabs and backed by U.S. airstrikes and ground forces, have ceased. SDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo said it is “combing the city for sleeper cells and cleaning it from land mines,” after which a formal declaration will be made. A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, Army Col. Ryan Dillon, said 90 percent of Raqqa is under SDF control, with an estimated 100 IS fighters remaining in the city.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Raqqa, which IS first captured in January 2014, was the group’s last “major urban stronghold” in the Middle East. SDF has battled IS fighters since June and 300 IS fighters surrendered on Sunday, according to the Associated Press. IS had not commented on the situation as of Tuesday evening, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center reported in August 2016 that IS operates in 18 countries, including Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In July,  the Iraqi city of Mosul was recaptured after being under IS control for three years. The city had been under IS control for three years. Fox News reported that IS currently occupies 81 miles of the Euphrates River valley in eastern central Syria.

Local activists and international monitors report that U.S.-led airstrikes have killed more than 1,000 civilians in Raqqa, according to AP and The New York Times.  About 270,000 people have been displaced from Raqqa since the fighting began in the city, the Times reported.

Distortion Highlights

  • The media often misses the complexities involved in fighting violent groups like Islamic State.
  • Yet in their coverage of the Raqqa operation, news outlets did a better job of discussing the bigger picture.
  • Read below to see how fighting violence with violence can be limited.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

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

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The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Inglorious end

    With the fall of Raqqa—Islamic State’s last major urban stronghold in the Middle East—the self-declared caliphate is meeting an inglorious end. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Death throes

    The Islamic State, in the death throes of its hold on the Syrian city of Raqqa, is losing its foothold in the two nations where it established its bloody roots. (Fox News)

  • Brazenly terrorized

    Once the owner — or captor — of a swath of land in Syria and Iraq, the militant group has lost control of its two key cities — and half of the original territory it once brazenly terrorized. (Fox News)

  • Reign of terror

    U.S.-backed forces said Tuesday they have captured Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, driving the extremists from a Syrian city that became synonymous with their reign of terror and was used as a nerve center to stage attacks on the West. (The Wall Street Journal)

    It was the first Syrian city to fall under the group’s control and helped to establish its power as ISIS began a reign of terror that included beheading, shooting, burning and drowning its opponents and hatching plots to export its brand of terror globally.  (Fox News)

  • Preying

    ‘The group’s initial rise showcased its strategy of preying on weak nations. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Empire

    But today Islamic State’s empire is now largely destroyed. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Backlash

    The SDF is a multi-ethnic force, but its Kurdish leadership harbors ambitions of autonomous rule over a Kurdish region in Syria that now includes the Arab-majority Raqqa, leading to concerns of a possible backlash among the city’s Sunni Arab population. (The New York Times)

  • Dramatic uptick

    The head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5 chief Andrew Parker, said Tuesday in a rare public speech that there has been a dramatic uptick in the of Islamist extremism to the U.K. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Inflame relations

    The fall of Raqqa threatens to inflame relations between Kurds and Arabs, who have been fighting the Islamic State in an uneasy alliance with the United States-led coalition — but against an enemy that is rapidly melting away. (The New York Times)

The media coverage we analyzed on the Raqqa operation starts off similarly — using spin to suggest that it’s a major success in the fight against Islamic State. For instance, The Wall Street Journal’s lead sentence says the operation was “driving the extremists from a Syrian city,” and Fox News says IS “was dealt a massive blow.” If people stop reading after the first few paragraphs, they may have the impression that this was a clear victory in the effort to stop the violent organization, which may be an oversimplification of a complex issue.

The reporting goes on to discuss some of the complexities and potential drawbacks of using violence against a violent group like IS. For example, the outlets say:

  • As IS loses territory in Syria, it may respond by either increasing the number of “terrorist” attacks in Europe, or expand into neighboring regions. (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal)

Violence may lead to more violence.

  • Driving IS out of Raqqa and Syria could leave a power vacuum and fighting between other groups. (AP, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal)

Getting rid of a violent group doesn’t in itself create stability and peace.

  • U.S.-led airstrikes in Raqqa have resulted in more than 1,000 civilian casualties, according to monitors. (AP, The New York Times)

Fighting violence with violence has a price.

And perhaps the most telling of all:

  • The Wall Street Journal writes: “The U.S. and its allies, as well as other countries that have fought Islamic State and other militant groups in recent decades, have been unable to kill off the extremist ideology that feeds the groups.”

Killing members of militant groups will not address the root causes of why the groups exist, nor prevent new recruits from joining or new groups from forming.

News outlets could explore these complexities even further. For example, they could ask:

  • What are Islamic State’s ideological aims, and why did it form in the first place? (See Context section) This could speak to some of the root problems that we might need to address in order to prevent another violent group from forming in place of IS.
  • How might the U.S. and other countries have contributed to current conditions in Syria and other areas where IS exists?
  • What factors might drive people to join a violent organization like IS? How could violence be addressed on an individual, human level?
  • Could using violence to fight violence normalize and perpetuate it?

Resolving issues of violence is not a simple task, and there probably isn’t a single short-term solution. If history is any indicator, killing all the members of a violent group without addressing other factors doesn’t tend to stop violence. The more media consumers are aware of the complexities involved in such efforts, the more capacity we may have to address the root causes.

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

  • 43% Spun

  • 57% Spun

  • 59% Spun

  • 59% Spun


The Wall Street Journal

“The head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5 chief Andrew Parker, said Tuesday in a rare public speech that there has been a dramatic uptick in the threat of Islamist extremism to the U.K.”

Parker said in a speech that 500 counter-terrorism operations are running, with 3,000 individuals involved in terrorism-related activities, the highest he’s seen in 34 years.

FOX News

“Now, ISIS is reportedly ‘regrouping and recruiting’ in other chaos-torn nations as its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, resurfaces in cryptic audio messages, urging ‘soldiers of Islam and caliphate supporters’ to remain focused on their victory.”

IS is reportedly “regrouping and recruiting” in other nations. In an audio recording, someone purported to be al-Baghdadi addressed “soldiers of Islam and caliphate supporters.”

Fact Comparison

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

IS is reportedly operational in 18 countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center said in an August 2016 report. It also has “aspiring branches” in Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. (Fox News)

This information may help to illustrate the scope of IS’ global influence, which may counter any assumptions that the group is close to worldwide defeat after losing Raqqa and Mosul. While the other articles we analyzed note the group’s remaining “pockets” of territorial control along the Euphrates River, only Fox News points out the estimated extent of the group’s international operations.


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

Informative and without opinion.

Doesn’t say how it “tests” the U.S.’ commitment.

The operation was led by the SDF, which has Kurdish fighters and is backed by the U.S., so it’s possible the Raqqa operation affects their relationship. But how exactly? This headline could exaggerate the impact on future relations, or even suggest the U.S. is not committed to the Kurds.


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

The media’s slant:
  • IS a “brutal” terrorist group that imposes a “reign of terror.” Therefore, it should be destroyed.
  • Retaking control of Raqqa is a “major” victory for the U.S.-led coalition forces against the terrorist group, which is “meeting an inglorious end.”
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • IS does very destructive acts—such as beheadings, suicide bombings and the training of child soldiers—and the nature of these acts can speak for themselves without added sensationalism. As some outlets point out, killing IS fighters or disbanding the group may not affect the ideology that underpins their beliefs and motivates their violent actions.
  • Recapturing Raqqa may not necessarily signal an end to IS. The group’s leader is still reportedly recruiting via the internet and radio broadcasts, and fighters are regrouping in other areas. The members may change, but the group could still persist.  


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

What is the Islamic State?

Media outlets uses phrases such as “terrorists,” “jihadists,” or “extremists” to describe the group, but what do we know about them? Let’s start with the name.

ISIS: English-language acronym for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” or “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.” According to BBC, “al-Sham” is an Arabic word that can be translated to mean “the Levant,” “Greater Syria,” “Syria,” or “Damascus.”

ISIL: English-language acronym for “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” The Levant comprises countries along the eastern Mediterranean shores.

Islamic State (IS): According to BBC, the group shortened its name to the Islamic State after it established its so-called “caliphate” in 2014. The shortened name, BBC reports, was meant to show its “expansionist ambitions.”

Daesh: Arabic-language acronym for “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa al-Sham,” which is the Arabic translation for the ISIL acronym. CNN states the Arabic language typically doesn’t use acronyms; IS opposes the use of “Daesh” and threatens to cut the tongues out of anyone who refers to the group by that name. CNN asserts that using an Arabic acronym “weakens” the group’s ability to “convey the narrative they want to non-Arabic-speaking audiences.” BBC adds that “daesh” sounds similar to an arabic word that means to crush or trample, though the word itself doesn’t mean anything.

When was IS established?

Accounts of the group’s origin vary. The Council on Foreign Relations says its creation was part of a rebranding effort by al Qaeda forces in Iraq. According to CNN, IS was started in 2006 by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, a former leader of al Qaeda.

Masri named Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the group’s leader. Upon Abu Omar al-Baghdadi’s death in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the IS leader. Although media outlets have reported on al-Baghdadi’s possible death, the reports haven’t been confirmed and no new leader has publicly come forward.

Where is IS located?

IS started in Iraq, then established itself in Syria in 2013 when it merged with the al-Nusra Front, a group that was fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. In 2014, IS captured Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. It proclaimed its “caliphate,” or an area controlled by an Islamic spiritual leader, in those cities. Then, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly received oaths of allegiance from militants in Libya. According to a 2016 report by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, IS has become operational in 18 countries across the world, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Nigeria.

What’s the group’s ideology?

IS adheres to a political system called Jihadi-Salafism. According to The Brookings Institution, Salafism is the belief that “true Islam” should be based on the example of the early generations of Muslims, known as the Salaf, that lived around the time of the Prophet Muhammad. One interpretation of jihadism refers to the idea that religiously-sanctioned warfare is an individual obligation required of Muslims. Jihadi-Salafism combines the individual obligation for warfare with the adherence to Salafism. Brookings notes that groups such as IS use this ideology to condone violence against other Muslims, whom they claim don’t follow their “true” version of the religion.

IS has stipulated: Muslims must only associate with other “true” Muslims; a failure to rule in accordance with God’s law constitutes unbelief; and fighting the Islamic State is considered an abandonment of faith. Salafism also includes eliminating idolatry, which may involve destroying tombs, shrines and other historical artifacts.

For a detailed look at IS ideology and its evolution, see the Brookings’ 2015 analysis, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State.”