Kurdish president to step down: How spin interferes with understanding the news
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Kurdish president to step down: How spin interferes with understanding the news

October 30, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Iraqi Kurdish President Barzani won’t seek a fourth term

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, announced on Sunday that he will not seek re-election when his term ends on Nov. 1. The region’s parliament voted 70 to 23 to accept Barzani’s resignation, according to Kurdish TV channels Rudaw and Kurdistan 24. Barzani, 71, is in his third term and has been the region’s president since 2005.

Protesters entered parliament during the vote, and eyewitnesses cited by BBC said some carried clubs. According to Reuters, some demonstrators said members of parliament had “insulted” Barzani; the outlet didn’t elaborate.

Barzani said after leaving office he will continue to help the Kurdish people “in their struggle for independence” – Kurds voted in favor of independence from Iraq last month. Barzani’s senior assistant Hemin Hawrami said the president would stay in politics as leader of the High Political Council, which was formed to do post-referendum work on Kurdish independence, according to Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera reported that on Saturday, Barzani wrote a letter describing how to distribute power once he is no longer president.

According to an unnamed Kurdish official cited by Reuters, regional elections that were originally scheduled for Nov. 1 have been delayed for eight months.

Referendum

In a referendum on Sept. 25, 92.7 percent of Kurds voted in favor of independence from Iraq. The turnout for the referendum was 72.6 percent, with 3,305,925 people voting. On Sept. 27, the Iraqi parliament, which rejected the referendum prior to it taking place, asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send troops to Kirkuk, which exists outside the Kurdish autonomous region and had been under Kurdish control since 2014. On Oct. 16, Iraqi forces said they had captured the airport, an oil field, a military base and the governorate building in Kirkuk and had drawn no opposition from Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Over the next two days, Kurdish forces withdrew from Kirkuk and other disputed areas.

For more information, see the Timeline section.

Additional sources: BBC, Reuters

Distortion Highlights

  • Sensational, imprecise or subjective terms make it harder to understand the events leading up to Kurdish President Barzani’s resignation.
  • Laying the facts out in a timeline of events can bring precision and clarity to otherwise ambiguous language.
  • See how spin introduces implications and ambiguity that can influence how the facts are understood.

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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

  • Backlash

    The referendum resulted in an overwhelming “yes” but the political and diplomatic backlash came as an unpleasant surprise. (Al Jazeera)

    Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani will step down as president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region as the political backlash to September’s Kurdish independence referendum continues. (CNN)

  • Backfired

    Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani is set to step down, following an independence referendum that backfired and damaged Kurdish hopes for autonomy. (The Daily Caller)

  • Major blow

    The military campaign dealt a major blow to Barzani’s independence gambit, loosening the KRG’s grip over much of the territory it had controlled until the standoff this month. (CNN)

  • Beating heart

    Iraqi federal forces, within two days, took over large areas of the disputed territories that the Kurds had controlled for the last few years, causing them to lose oil-rich Kirkuk – the beating heart of any future Kurdish state – whose oil would have allowed the hypothetical state to fund itself. (Al Jazeera)

  • Roiling

    He engineered several extensions through parliament, roiling his opposition amid a security and financial crisis sparked by the rise of the Islamic State militant group in 2014 and the collapse of global oil prices. (The Washington Post)

  • Serious enmity

    The move for autonomy also provoked serious enmity from Turkey and Iran. (The Daily Caller)

  • Powerhouses

    The 71-year-old leader called for a referendum on independence from Iraq despite heavy opposition from Baghdad, as well regional powerhouses Iran and Turkey. (CNN)

  • Onslaught

    Of particular concern was the provocative decision to hold the referendum in areas historically claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including Kirkuk — an oil-producing province that peshmerga forces seized during a chaotic withdrawal of Iraqi forces in the face of an Islamic State onslaught. (The Washington Post)

When the Kurdish referendum took place last month, The Knife wrote about how sensational, imprecise or subjective terms (or, spin) made it harder to understand what happened and what the effects of the vote could be. After the Kurdish president stepped down on Sunday, we looked at the same outlets as we did last month and found a similar problem with spin in their coverage.

Here is an illustration of how spin introduces implications and ambiguity that can influence how the facts are understood.

The examples below are taken from the first three sentences of each article:

Masoud Barzani…had promised that the vote on independence from Baghdad would be a vital step in a century-long fight for self-rule. Instead, it unraveled many of the gains the Kurds had made in carving out a semiautonomous region in northern Iraq after decades of war. (The Washington Post)

Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani is set to step down, following an independence referendum that backfired and damaged Kurdish hopes for autonomy. (The Daily Caller)

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani will step down as president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region as the political backlash to September’s Kurdish independence referendum continues. (CNN)

The decision comes just over a month after a controversial secession referendum spearheaded by Barzani, which led to days of fighting between Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. (Al Jazeera)

If you already know what happened, then you might understand how the referendum may have “backfired” or what specific events “backlash” could be referring to. If you don’t know the events leading up to Barzani stepping down, these terms aren’t that informative. In fact, they introduce ambiguity about what happened. They also import misleading implications that we’ll examine shortly.

Let us fill you in with an abridged version of the events preceding and following the referendum. Notice how the facts bring precision and clarity while terms like “backfired” and “backlash” don’t:

  • Sept. 18: Iraq’s Supreme Court orders the referendum, scheduled for Sept. 25, to be suspended.
  • Sept. 25: Kurds vote in a non-binding referendum on independence from Iraq. The results were 92.73 percent in favor of independence from Iraq.
  • Sept. 26: Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi asks the Kurdish region to hand over control of its two international airports to the Iraqi government. He says he made the request because the referendum had “destabilized” the region.
  • Oct. 16: Iraqi forces capture the airport, an oil field, a military base and the governorate building in Kirkuk.
  • Oct. 25: The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) offers to “freeze” the results of the referendum and begin talks with the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

The outlets do include some, though not all, of the above facts, but this information does not come until later in the articles, whereas the spin words are used within the first three sentences. As a result, the ambiguity introduced by these terms, and the potential effect this has on understanding the news, is present throughout the article.

Ambiguity isn’t the only problem. Saying the referendum “backfired” or “unraveled” Kurdish independence also implies the vote caused the events that followed it. This isn’t necessarily incorrect, but blaming the referendum may close down further questioning. There may be additional factors that led to the sequence of events that followed the vote.

Comparing the timeline above to the spin also highlights the boundary between fact and opinion. It’s fact that the Supreme Court ruled to suspend the referendum and that Iraqi troops captured parts of Kirkuk following the vote – this is verifiable and has consistent meaning from person to person. Saying there was “backlash” or the vote was “controversial” is opinion – it’s subjective and therefore difficult to verify, and different people may have different impressions of what happened.

Fact-based news cuts through the ambiguity, implication and imprecision, saving readers the effort of searching out missing information and removing spin to uncover undistorted facts. This is what The Knife does for you in our Raw Data and Context sections.

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

  • 28% Spun

  • 31% Spun

  • 32% Spun

  • 66% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

CNN

“Less than a month after Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of secession, Iraqi government forces, backed by Shia militia, swept through swathes of Kurdish-controlled territories.”

Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from the city of Kirkuk and the towns Bashiqa, Khanaqin and Sinjar.

The Daily Caller

“The move for autonomy also provoked serious enmity from Turkey and Iran.”

Turkey, Iran and Iraq gave a joint statement, saying, “the referendum will not be beneficial for the Kurds and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and [the three foreign ministers] agreed, in this regard, to consider taking counter-measures in coordination.”

Fact Comparison

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

Nov. 1 was the date of a planned election for president and parliament that has now been postponed indefinitely. (The Washington Post)


This statement may inaccurately suggest that the election’s postponement lacks a definite timeframe. According to Kurdish media outlet Rudaw, the Kurdistan parliament agreed to postpone parliamentary and presidential elections for eight months. Al Jazeera also reported the eight-month postponement. Kurdistan’s regional government has not issued a statement to suggest this timeframe has changed.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Tuesday that his government had decided to demand control of the airports because the referendum had “destabilized” the region. (The New York Times)


As explained in The Distortion, the articles imply the referendum led to the Kurds losing territory they once controlled, but give little context for how and why this loss happened. Knowing that the Iraqi prime minister thought the region was “destabilized” at least gives some context for why military forces were deployed. None of the articles we analyzed included this information.

Barzani will remain in Kurdish politics as leader of the High Political Council, according to his senior assistant Hemin Hawrami. The KRG’s High Political Council was formed to handle the post-referendum phase. (Al Jazeera)


In its coverage, The Washington Post said it wasn’t “clear whether [Barzani] intends to leave public life altogether or remain as president while redistributing” some of his authority to other government bodies, which may encourage people to assume his next role may be similar to that of the presidency. However, Al Jazeera cites his senior assistant saying Barzani will stay in politics as the leader of the “High Political Council,” which may provide a more concrete, and less speculative, idea of what Barzani’s post-presidential political career might entail.

Headlines

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

Sensationalizes the referendum

The vote was opposed by Iraq and other countries, but “thorny” is a dramatic way to describe it.

Focuses blame on the U.S.

There are likely many factors that contributed to Barzani’s resignation and the events that preceded it, but this headline is biased in favor of putting the onus on the U.S.

Possibly alarming without giving specifics about the “tensions.”

What has actually happened that the Financial Times is calling “tensions”? Are there disagreements among different Kurdish groups? If so, what are the different sides saying? Has there been any physical conflict?

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • The independence referendum initiated by Barzani “backfired”, triggering a military response and resulting in damage to Kurdish “hopes” for autonomy.
  • The events following the referendum were a “blow” to Kurdish independence.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • There are probably a number of factors that helped give rise to the events following the vote; a referendum alone doesn’t necessarily warrant a military response.
  • The Kurds’ loss of territory they once controlled could be seen as a setback, but this view is perhaps narrow. As reported by CNN, Kurds have been seeking autonomy since 1916 and it’s likely there have been multiple ups and downs along the way. Without more information, it’s difficult to put the current state of Kurdish independence into context.

Context

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

The media’s coverage of Barzani’s resignation didn’t provide many details about the events leading up his announcement. Below is a timeline of the events that occurred after the Kurdish government announced plans for an independence referendum. For a brief history of the Kurdish people, see our previous Context section.

Timeline