How the media turned a tariff plan into a ‘war’

How the media turned a tariff plan into a ‘war’

March 5, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

President Donald Trump announced last week that the U.S. would impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports. “We’re going to build our steel industry back and our aluminum industry back,” Trump said.

Following the announcement, the European Union, Canada, China and other countries said they would consider introducing tariffs if Trump moves forward with his proposal.

On Saturday, Trump tweeted, “If the E.U. wants to further increase their already massive tariffs and barriers on U.S. companies doing business there, we will simply apply a Tax on their Cars which freely pour into the U.S. They make it impossible for our cars (and more) to sell there. Big trade imbalance!”

If the U.S. does impose the tariffs, countries can challenge them through the World Trade Organization.

Read the full Raw Data for Thursday’s announcement here.

Distortion Highlights

  • The media coverage we analyzed compared Trump’s announcement about tariffs to starting a “war”
  • In addition to the dramatic language, the outlets reinforced the slant by cherry-picking information
  • See how these distortions gave media outlets low ratings for this story, and how they can affect our understanding of 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

  • Battle cry

    Trump’s battle cry came after his announcement Thursday of a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent of aluminum imports roiled global markets and angered world leaders. (Fox News)

  • War of Words

    US President Donald Trump has stepped up his war of words over trade tariffs, threatening to “apply a tax” on imports of cars from the European Union. (BBC)

  • Trade war

    Critics of Trump’s approach have often complained that tariffs and trade wars only drive up costs for domestic consumers …  (The Washington Post)

    Trump fires up trade war rhetoric, threatens EU with tax on European cars (Fox News)

    President Trump on Saturday threatened the European Union with a tax on cars made in Europe, responding to E.U. pushback against his proposed steel and aluminum tariffs — the latest fiery rhetoric in a brewing trade war. (Fox News)

  • Took a swing

    A day after President Trump took a swing at United States trading partners by threatening stiff and sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum, they hit back. (The New York Times)

  • Truculent rhetoric

    The new tariffs and the president’s truculent rhetoric triggered angry responses among the countries that are closest to the United States … (The Washington Post)

  • Unmoved by the blowback

    Mr. Trump appeared unmoved by the blowback, posting a series of Twitter messages on Friday defending his proposal to impose tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum. (The New York Times)

  • Fuel trade tensions

    That could further fuel trade tensions and make it less likely that the United States will be able to reach the types of bilateral or multilateral agreements that have helped expand American exports. (The New York Times)

  • Trade fight

    Those levies would harm the farmers and business interests that the Trump administration has promised to protect and would fuel a trade fight that could undermine the president’s goal of strengthening American industry. (The Washington Post)

  • Questioned the wisdom

    A number have questioned the wisdom of the tariff proposal and have been urging the president to reconsider. (BBC)

Metaphors are useful in some types of writing, like novels or poetry, or sometimes for explaining concepts. But in the news, they can distort facts by adding sensationalism.

There was one metaphor that was used multiple times in the coverage we analyzed of President Trump’s recently proposed trade tariffs: he’s starting a trade “war.” This is an example of spin, or language that isn’t data-based or objective.

This language implies the tariffs will lead to conflict and negative consequences. The outlets reinforced this perspective through slant, or by selectively assembling facts and opinions to support this particular point of view.

Spin and slant were the largest contributors to low overall integrity ratings of 34, 38, 39 and 51 percent for The Washington Post, Fox News, The New York Times and BBC, respectively.

Let’s take a closer look.


The coverage in The Times, Fox News, The Post and BBC was 86, 85, 83 and 82 percent spun, respectively (the higher the number the more spun the article). Here are a few examples that contain the “war” metaphor described above (spin words bolded):

The Post: In his expanding war over global trade, President Trump has aimed his harshest rhetoric at an unlikely target — the closest U.S. allies.

Fox News: Trump fires up trade war rhetoric, threatens EU with tax on European cars

BBC: Trump steps up war of words on trade with threat to tax EU cars

The facts, in part, are that Trump said the U.S. would impose trade tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Some countries responded saying they would introduce tariffs if this happens. Does describing this as a “war” inform readers? No, but it may elicit an emotional response.

Granted, the phrase “trade war” is used in business and economics, but it’s still not a data-based term. Also, the outlets used it repetitively (a total of eight times in three of the articles), at times outside of the phrase “trade war.”

The Times didn’t explicitly use the “war” metaphor, but it did use combative language. For example:

A day after President Trump took a swing at United States trading partners by threatening stiff and sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum, they hit back.

How might using words and phrases like “war,” “took a swing” and “hit back” influence how we regard the tariffs and other economic and diplomatic policy initiatives?


The spin described above not only dramatizes, but it promotes a particular opinion: Trump is starting a fight and the tariffs will be detrimental to the U.S. and other countries.

The outlets reinforced this point of view by cherry-picking information that supported it. One way to illustrate this is to look at how many sentences supported the above view, which we refer to as the main perspective, compared to how many supported alternative perspectives. These numbers are shown in the following table:


The Post

Fox News



Statements supporting the main perspective





Statements supporting alternate perspectives





As you can see, the majority of the sentences supported this one point of view, which resulted in The Times, Fox News, The Post and BBC being 75, 72, 71 and 58 percent slanted, respectively (higher percentages mean more slant). BBC was the least slanted because it had a higher ratio of alternative perspectives. In other words, it was more balanced.

You can look at the slant section in our Technical Sheet to see which sentences we determined supported the main perspective or alternative perspectives. But to give you an idea, all of the sentences in the spin section above supported the main perspective. Other examples included citing people who oppose the tariffs:

The Post: “Trade experts say the president has exaggerated and oversimplified the trade issues with Europe.“

BBC: “A number [of Republicans] have questioned the wisdom of the tariff proposal and have been urging the president to reconsider.”

In comparison, here’s an example of a statement illustrating another point of view:

The Times: “Labor unions and Rust Belt politicians, including Democrats, commended Mr. Trump for fulfilling an important political promise he made during the campaign. ‘Our view is we needed some relief on illegally traded products,’ said John J. Ferriola, chairman, president and chief executive of [steel company] Nucor Corporation.”

Note that it isn’t necessarily unbalanced for an outlet to cite information that supports or opposes the tariffs; it’s slanted when more weight is given to one perspective and others are left out. This can influence how we understand the story. Take, for example, the above sentence from the Times. Is your overall perspective affected by considering steel industry executive Ferriola’s point of view?

This potentially raises other questions that weren’t explored in the articles, such as what do others in the steel industry think. How many in the industry support the tariffs versus oppose them? Would it change your perspective to hear from industry executives who oppose them?


Whether you agree or disagree with the tariffs, critical thinking involves looking at facts, evaluating multiple perspectives and asking questions. What are the arguments for the tariffs? What are arguments against them? What are the underlying facts and analyses supporting these arguments? These things are likely harder to do when news outlets report mostly one side of the story using sensational, war-like language.

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

  • 82% Spun

  • 83% Spun

  • 85% Spun

  • 86% Spun

The Numbers

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

View Technical Sheet >