How the media deviated from fact-based reporting at the UN
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How the media deviated from fact-based reporting at the UN

September 20, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump addresses UN General Assembly

U.S. President Donald Trump gave a speech to world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday morning. In his first speech to the 193-member international body, Trump addressed topics concerning North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and other nations as well as American “sovereignty.” 

Below are some highlights from the 41-minute address:

North Korea

“The U.S. has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” Trump said. In reference to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, he said, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.”

The U.N. has imposed sanctions on North Korea nine times since the country’s first nuclear tests in 2006. The most recent round of sanctions was passed Sept. 11, after North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test.

Trump said it is an “outrage” that some nations support North Korea by providing arms and financial resources.

Iran

Trump said about the Iran nuclear deal, “we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides for the cover of the eventual construction of a nuclear program.” The agreement between Iran and six world powers imposes limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lessened sanctions. It was ratified by the U.N. Security Council in 2015. Under the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the U.S. must verify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement by Oct. 15.

Trump also accused Iran of funding “terrorists that kill innocent Muslims and attack their peaceful Arab and Israeli neighbors.”

Venezuela

The Venezuelan government is on a “path to impose authoritarian rule on the Venezuelan people,” Trump said. He added that the U.S. is “prepared to take further action” if it continues. Trump said the “problem” is socialism has been implemented in the country.

Venezuela voted this summer to allow the creation of a new legislative body, called a “Constituent Assembly,” that would have the power to rewrite the country’s constitution. The opposition said the vote was illegitimate, and the U.S. Treasury department issued sanctions against Venezuela.

Other countries and American interests

Speaking about cooperation with the Middle East, Trump said the U.S. “and our allies are working together throughout the Middle East to crush the loser terrorists and stop the reemergence of safe havens they use to launch attacks on all of our people.”  The president also had a separate meeting with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

“Major portions of the world are in conflict and some, in fact, are going to hell,” Trump said about conflicts around the world.  

Trump said he will “defend” America’s interests first, adding that “in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize it’s in everyone’s interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous and secure.”

Read his full speech here.

Distortion Highlights

  • The media said Trump’s U.N. speech was contradictory at times and a departure from previous presidents’ speeches. They might be right.
  • Instead of just reporting the facts, outlets added their own opinions, saying he was “saber-rattling” or “characteristically confrontational.”
  • Such opinions are more appropriate for editorials, not data-based journalism. Read below to see how the media could be more objective.

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

  • Saber-rattling

    Trump’s saber-rattling rhetoric, with the bare-knuckled style he used to win election last November, was in contrast to the comments of some of his own Cabinet members who have stated a preference for a diplomatic solution. (Reuters)

  • Dark Tones

    The at-times contradictory remarks were filled with soaring rhetoric that touched on everything from “God” to “chaos,” and the dark tones were reminiscent of Trump’s inaugural address, in which he promised to bring an end to “American carnage.” (Politico)

  • Acid Tone

    As loud, startled murmurs filled the hall, Trump described Kim in an acid tone, saying, “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.” (Reuters)

  • Grim Portrait

    In a hard-edged speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Trump offered a grim portrait of a world in peril, adopted a more confrontational approach to solving global challenges from Iran to Venezuela, and gave an unabashed defense of U.S. sovereignty. (Reuters)

  • Characteristically Confrontational

    President Trump brought a characteristically confrontational message to the United Nations on Tuesday as he vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatened the United States or its allies and denounced the nuclear agreement with Iran as “an embarrassment” that he may abandon. (The New York Times)

  • Typically Bombastic

    With typically bombastic flourishes like vowing to crushloser terrorists” and labeling North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, “Rocket Man,” Mr. Trump at times dispensed with the restrained rhetoric many American presidents use at the United Nations. (The New York Times)

  • Full-throated

    In the full-throated speech, where he also took aim at Iran and Venezuela in particular, Trump also attacked nations such as Russia and China, although he did not mention them by name, for trading with North Korea even as it brings the world to the brink of nuclear war. (Breitbart)

  • Unenthusiastic

    The rest of the audience gave Mr. Trump polite but unenthusiastic applause. (The New York Times)

  • Thunderous

    In a thunderous 41-minute speech, Trump took aim at Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional influence, Venezuela’s collapsing democracy and the threat of Islamist extremists. (Reuters)

  • Harsh

    Trump also went after Venezuela in unusually lengthy and harsh terms, alleging that its increasingly autocratic government has taken “a once-thriving nation to the brink of total collapse.” (Politico)

  • Starkest

    President Trump gave his starkest warning yet to the North Korean regime Tuesday, telling the United Nations General Assembly that the U.S. is prepared to destroy the rogue regime if forced to defend itself. (Breitbart)

Trump said some potentially unconventional things in his U.N. speech, and many media outlets pointed this out. His statements were different from what past U.S. leaders have said there, and from some recent remarks by his cabinet members. He spoke, for instance, of crushing “loser terrorists,” and said the U.S. could “totally destroy North Korea” under certain circumstances. He also made statements that could be seen as contradictory.

It’s not a problem that the media points these things out – indeed it can help us understand the president’s remarks in a greater context. It’s how it reports them. Instead of just reporting the facts, outlets added their own opinions—for instance, that he was “saber-rattling,” “unabashed” or “characteristically confrontational.” If outlets editorialize as they report, people may take the opinion as fact. This deviates from data-based journalism and can discourage critical evaluation. Take a look at the following examples:

The New York Times

“Trump at times dispensed with the restrained rhetoric many American presidents use at the United Nations”

“Trump arrived at the United Nations with a more overtly nationalist approach than past American presidents.”

The Times could cite speeches by previous U.S. presidents and compare them to Trump’s. That way, you could draw your own conclusions based on what they said, instead of relying on opinionated phrases like “more overtly nationalist.” We’ve provided some excerpts of various presidents’ U.N. speeches in the Context section. Take a look.

Politico

“The at-times contradictory remarks were filled with soaring rhetoric that touched on everything from ‘God’ to ‘chaos,’ and the dark tones were reminiscent of Trump’s inaugural address, in which he promised to bring an end to ‘American carnage.’”

Trump said the word “sovereignty” 21 times. He also talked about the U.N. guiding world leaders to “solve many of these vicious and complex problems.” You might find these concepts contradictory, or you might not, but you can decide for yourself without opinion like “soaring rhetoric” and “dark tones.”

Reuters

“Trump’s saber-rattling rhetoric, with the bare-knuckled style he used to win election last November, was in contrast to the comments of some of his own Cabinet members who have stated a preference for a diplomatic solution.”

Trump said if the U.S. “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Yet Defense Secretary James Mattis has said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was working on a diplomatic solution to North Korea. Reuters did include this information, but only after opinion like “saber-rattling” and “bare-knuckled style.”

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

  • 87% Spun

  • 87% Spun

  • 89% Spun

  • 93% Spun

Fiction
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Fact

Politico

“The at-times contradictory remarks were filled with soaring rhetoric that touched on everything from ‘God’ to ‘chaos,’ and the dark tones were reminiscent of Trump’s inaugural address, in which he promised to bring an end to ‘American carnage.’”

In his speech, Trump made remarks including the words “God” and “chaos.”

Reuters

“Trump’s saber-rattling rhetoric, with the bare-knuckled style he used to win election last November, was in contrast to the comments of some of his own Cabinet members who have stated a preference for a diplomatic solution.”

Some of Trump’s Cabinet members have stated their preference for a diplomatic solution regarding the conflict with North Korea.

Fact Comparison

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

North Korea’s ambassador left his seat before the president started speaking. (The New York Times)


This statement may be misleading and misrepresent North Korea’s attendance during the speech. Reuters reported that a “junior North Korean diplomat sat in the delegation’s front-row seat for Trump’s speech,” and a North Korean diplomat can be seen about 14 minutes into this CNN video of the address. The Times doesn’t mention this. Without a direct response from the ambassador or an official statement, we don’t know why he left.

Headlines

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

Missing a big “if”

Trump said, “if forced to defend itself,” the U.S. would “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Breitbart’s headline may misrepresent his position on North Korea, and could inspire alarm when taken out of context.

Focuses on the dramatic

Trump spoke for 41 minutes, and said many things. Politico’s headline highlights probably one of the most sensational statements he made, which might drive clicks but also emphasizes this comment over others. That’s slant. Also, Trump said, “Major portions of the world are in conflict and some are in fact going to hell,” rather than “major portions” are “going to hell.”

Misleads and discredits, with speculation.

Like Breitbart’s headline, CNN omits the first part of Trump’s statement that says, “if [the U.S. is] forced to defend itself.” Also, the headline casts doubt on whether Trump’s statement is genuine.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • Trump’s “hard-edged” and “confrontational” speech was unpresidential and undiplomatic. It dispensed with the restrained rhetoric of past presidents. It was “the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience,” according to one diplomat. (Politico, Reuters, The New York Times)
  • Trump didn’t focus on the right issues – like climate change or promoting unity.
  • Trump is getting tough and taking a strong stand on North Korea. (Breitbart)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Trump said what he said, and readers can decide for themselves if it was appropriate, without the media telling us its opinion. A direct speech with harsh words could lead to more clarity on the U.S.’ position under Trump.
  • Trump’s focused on what he decided was in the U.S.’ interest. He wasn’t required to address certain topics.
  • It’s possible that Trump’s rhetoric won’t result in practical policy changes. Also, he discussed many topics, but reading Breitbart you might think the speech was mostly about North Korea.

Context

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

What did each president say at the U.N.? Check out this link to compare parts of Trump’s U.N. speech to what previous U.S. presidents said on similar subjects in their first addresses to the U.N. General Assembly.

Word Usage: Take a look at how many times each president used the following words during their speeches:

Note: President George W. Bush’s speech was given shortly after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon buildings. President Barack Obama’s speech was given shortly after the recession ended in 2009.

 

Donald Trump

Barack Obama

George W. Bush

Bill Clinton

Dictator/ship

4

0

0

0

Terror/ist/ism

14

3

35

4

Extremist/ism

2

7

1

1

Evil

3

0

3

0

Loser

1

0

0

0

Hell

1

0

0

0

Fight/ing

5

1

3

2

Destroy

3

2

0

2

Murder

2

1

8

2

War

7

6

4

13

Nuclear

5

17

1

11

Sovereign/ty

21

1

0

0

Freedom

9

2

2

3

Prosper/ity/ous

16

4

1

4

Peace/keeping

15

29

8

34

Opportunity

2

9

1

5

Hope

5

5

5

3

Love

3

0

0

0

Russia

1

2

0

4

China

1

0

0

1

North Korea

8

2

0

0

Iran

12

2

3

0

Syria

4

1

0

0

Afghanistan

1

2

4

0

Israel/i

2

18

1

1

Palestine

0

2

1

1

Human Rights

2

3

2

4

Refugee

4

2

1

0

Climate Change

0

4

0

0*

* “global warming” was also not used.