The Iranian protests: The costs of replacing data with spin in news reporting
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The Iranian protests: The costs of replacing data with spin in news reporting

January 3, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

At least 21 dead, 450 arrested as Iranian protests continue into sixth day

Protests in Iran have resulted in at least 21 deaths and 450 arrests as of Jan. 2, CNN reported. The protests started in the city of Mashhad last Thursday after prices on various consumer goods increased. Protesters reportedly chanted slogans against government corruption, foreign policy initiatives and economic issues. According to The New York Times, people said they would continue protesting; the outlet did not elaborate.

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • Confrontations between protesters and law enforcement in Iran are incurring human and material losses. Wouldn’t you want to know why or how the protests started?
  • The media coverage we analyzed didn’t provide a lot of these specifics, but it did provide spin.
  • See what the costs of supplanting data with spin are to readers like you.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • War of words

    President Donald Trump stepped his war of words with Iran’s leaders on Monday, posting a tweet saying the “great Iranian people have been repressed for many years.” (BBC)

  • Raged

    Anti-government protests in Iran have turned increasingly violent with the deaths of 12 demonstrators and a police officer, raising the stakes as unrest on the streets has raged now for five days and confounded leaders who have struggled to respond. (The Washington Post)

  • Under the thumb

    Even the lifting of economic sanctions under Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with large foreign powers including the United States has not unleashed the growth Mr. Rouhani had hoped for, as key sectors of the economy remain under the thumb of obscure powers, including religious foundations and the country’s Revolutionary Guards. (The New York Times)

  • Brutality

    The prospect of a harsher response from security forces, whose brutality is notorious, raised fears of further violence in a country buffeted by conflict elsewhere in the region. (The Washington Post)

  • No leeway

    Despite Mr. Rouhani’s diplomatic language, it was clear the demonstrators would be given no leeway. (The New York Times)

  • Brooks little dissent

    Their chants and attacks on government buildings broke taboos in a system that brooks little dissent. (The Washington Post)

  • Crack down

    The Iranian government responded with conciliatory words from Mr. Rouhani, but also a widening security clampdown — and a pledge late Monday to crack down even harder. (The New York Times)

    President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged the public’s anger over the Islamic Republic’s flagging economy, though he and others warned that the government wouldn’t hesitate to crack down on those it considers lawbreakers. (AP)

    President Hassan Rouhani said protests were an “opportunity, not a threat” but vowed to crack down on “lawbreakers”. (BBC)

  • Stunning

    The protests have been stunning in their ferocity and geographic reach, spreading to far-flung towns and cities that are strongholds of the middle and working classes. (The Washington Post)

  • Tense

    On Monday in Tehran, the atmosphere was tense and security forces were out in large numbers. (The New York Times)

The media coverage we analyzed on Iran provided few specifics about the issues people are protesting about. That’s in part because news outlets made spin more important than data in their reporting.

There are different types of spin: there’s language that dramatizes, sensationalizes or leaves things open to interpretation, as well as language that’s imprecise or vague. Spin can easily drive our impression of news events, but at the expense of understanding them more concisely. In this case, providing data about the issues people are protesting about can bring attention to what needs solving, and help hold both the government and protesters accountable.

Of the four outlets we analyzed, The Washington Post’s and The New York Times’ coverage was the most spun, earning a 71 and 66 percent spin rating, respectively (more spin yields a higher score). The Associated Press and BBC, by contrast, were the least spun with 28 and 46 percent ratings, respectively. Here are some examples (the spin is noted in red).

What’s the problem, exactly?

Iran’s economy has grown since the nuclear deal thanks to resumed oil exports — Iran is a major OPEC power — but growth outside the oil sector has sagged. (The Washington Post)

The protests in Iran reportedly started because of public discontent with rising consumer prices and slow economic growth, among other issues. (For more on this, read our Raw Data.) In the Post’s description, “sagged” brings the idea across with no specifics. Compare the quote above to this data we compiled from a World Bank and an IMF report:

Iran’s oil-based growth rate increased from 1.3 percent in 2015 to 13.4 percent in 2016. Oil and gas production increased by 62 percent, mainly as a result of sanctions relief. Non-oil GDP contracted -2.7 percent in 2015 and grew 0.8 percent in 2016.

Leave it up to the imagination

The Iranian government responded with conciliatory words from Mr. Rouhani, but also a widening security clampdown — and a pledge late Monday to crack down even harder. (The New York Times)

How does the spin here drive your imagination as to what may come? Compared to objectively defined terms such as “martial law,” language like “clampdown” or “crack down” implies a negative but loosely defined outcome.

We also didn’t find any of the Times’ language in Rouhani’s statements Sunday and Monday. Compare the Times’ version to Rouhani’s: “the government will definitely not tolerate any group that wants to destroy public property, disrupt the social order or create chaos in society” and “Our people will put an end to a small group who chant slogans against people’s will and against the law, insulting the values of the revolution and damaging public properties.”

Measurement, please

The strength and volatility of the protests have caught Iranian politicians by surprise. (The New York Times)

The protests have been stunning in their ferocity … (The Washington Post)

These terms all sound pretty negative, but how exactly does one measure them? Also, did Iranian politicians say they were “caught by surprise” or is that the Times’ interpretation? Proper attribution is another line that spin can blur.

The what?

The protests … also suggest a rejiggering of some traditional divisions. (The New York Times)

If you want specifics on the “traditional divisions” that might be “rejiggered,” and what this may mean, you won’t find it in the Times’ article. See where we’re going with this?

The use of spin in reporting has three immediate costs to readers, especially when it supplants data. First, the subjectivity and lack of precision make understanding what happened more difficult. Second, it distracts us from issues that may be important to bring awareness to. And third, it inspires us to grow accustomed to spin, which makes us more susceptible to sensationalism and misinformation. Should any of these be part of reading the news?

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

  • 28% Spun

  • 46% Spun

  • 66% Spun

  • 71% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The New York Times

“Ignoring pleas for calm from President Hassan Rouhani, Iranian protesters took to the streets in several cities for the fifth day on Monday as pent-up economic and political frustrations boiled over in the broadest display of discontent in years.”

Iranians protested for a fifth day on Monday. In a televised address Sunday, Rouhani asked demonstrators to refrain from violence.

The Washington Post

“The protests have been stunning in their ferocity and geographic reach, spreading to far-flung towns and cities…”

Protests were reported in various cities, as well as 13 deaths that happened in towns including Tuyserkan, Izeh, and Dorud in Lorestan province. Tuyserkan is located 185 miles south-west of Tehran.

BBC News

“Vice-President Mike Pence took an even stronger tone. He tweeted: ‘The bold and growing resistance of the Iranian people today gives hope and faith to all who struggle for freedom and against tyranny. We must not and we will not let them down.’”

Pence tweeted: “The bold and growing resistance of the Iranian people today gives hope and faith to all who struggle for freedom and against tyranny. We must not and we will not let them down.”

The Numbers

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

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