Hidden implications in the coverage of the US ambassador to Mexico
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Hidden implications in the coverage of the US ambassador to Mexico

March 3, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US ambassador to Mexico announces her resignation

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, announced on Thursday that she would resign in May. Jacobson made the announcement in a letter sent to embassy staff. She did not give a reason for the resignation. Jacobson said she had “come to the difficult decision that it is the right time to move on to new challenges and adventures.” A replacement has not been publicly announced.

Read the rest of the Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • Media coverage implied the ambassador is resigning because of Trump and the state of relations between the U.S. and Mexico
  • That’s possible, but outlets didn’t provide data to support it
  • Read how the conjecture is potentially misleading, and can promote blame, fear and uncertainty

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Pledging to tear up

    Mrs. Jacobson leaves at a tense moment in relations between Mexico and the United States, with President Trump vowing to have Mexico pay to build a wall between the countries, pledging to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement and promising to deport millions of Mexicans who crossed the border illegally. (The New York Times)

  • Tense Relations

    U.S. Ambassador to Mexico to Quit Amid Tense Relations Under Trump. (The New York Times)

  • Rapidly deteriorating

    The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Roberta S.Jacobson, plans to leave her post this spring, a move that could further strain a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the two countries at a time of major negotiations on trade, a controversial border wall project and an upcoming presidential election in Mexico. (The Washington Post)

  • Severe strain

    Roberta Jacobson, who was confirmed under President Barack Obama in 2016, is retiring at a time of severe strain in U.S.-Mexico relations, spurred by President Donald Trump’s demand that Mexico pay for a border wall and his repeated accusation that countries such as Mexico aren’t doing enough to stem the flow of drugs and illegal migrants. (Bloomberg)

  • Fraught relationship

    Whitacre will enter a fraught relationship between the United States and Mexico. (The Washington Post)

  • Distrust

    At a time when distrust of the United States is high in Mexico, Guajardo said Jacobson is viewed warmly by Mexicans. (Associated Press)

  • Troubled

    Last month, President Trump and President Enrique Peña Nieto held a troubled phone call in which the two disagreed about Trump’s proposed border wall. (The Washington Post)

  • Assuage growing concern

    Mrs. Jacobson was left working with her Mexican counterparts to assuage growing concern — and anger — at the new president’s tough talk. (The New York Times)

  • Exodus

    Mrs. Jacobson will be leaving a State Department that has seen an exodus of foreign service officers. (The New York Times)

  • Wave of Diplomats

    U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Joins Wave of Diplomats Stepping Down (Bloomberg)

    The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, a career diplomat with more than 30 years of service, announced her intention to step down from the job, joining a wave of senior officers to leave the State Department under the Trump administration. (Bloomberg)

  • Testy phone call

    There was also a testy phone call between Mr. Trump and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico that derailed tentative plans for the two leaders to meet after Mr. Trump refused to drop his demand that Mexico pay for the border wall. (The New York Times)

  • Threats of deep budget cuts

    With the resignation, Jacobson joins a growing list of State Department officials, from younger diplomats to senior officers, leaving a department jarred by Trump’s more confrontational approach to foreign policy and threats of deep budget cuts under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Bloomberg)

When U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson announced her plan to resign, this was the headline in The New York Times:

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico to Quit Amid Tense Relations Under Trump

Although it’s not directly stated, the juxtaposition here implies that Ambassador Jacobson is resigning because of “tense relations” and Trump.

Here’s AP’s headline:

US ambassador to Mexico to resign, amid strained relations

Similarly, this headline may imply the ambassador is resigning because of “strained relations” between the two countries.   

Now, compare these headlines to Jacobson’s statement announcing her intention to resign (translated from Spanish):

“It’s been an honor and a pleasure to serve my country as Ambassador to Mexico. After 31 years of service for the U.S. government, I will be leaving at the beginning of May to pursue other opportunities. I do this knowing that U.S.-Mexican relations are strong and crucial, and that the incredible team from our mission in Mexico will make sure that this continues. At the moment, I don’t have information about who my successor will be. I carry Mexico in my soul and in my heart, and I will continue doing everything within my reach to live up to my words: Together we are stronger!”

There’s nothing in the statement that suggests she’s resigning because of Trump or “tense relations” between the U.S. and Mexico. On the contrary, she says relations are “strong and crucial” and the only reason she gives for leaving is that she’s pursuing “other opportunities.” It’s possible Trump and current relations are reasons for her decision, and the outlets may have information that points to this, but they don’t provide data to support their implications. Without such data, the coverage is conjecture and potentially misleading.

It may be true that there’s more disagreement than before between the U.S. and Mexico. Last week, the two countries reportedly canceled a plan for Mexican President Peña Nieto to visit the White House after Peña Nieto and Trump disagreed about the border wall on a phone call. But words such as “tense” and “strained” are subjective, dramatic and not well-defined. A more objective report would describe in fact-based terms what makes the relations “strained.” Also, these words may not be balanced because they don’t take into account positive aspects of relations (for instance, even if there are political disagreements, total trade between the U.S. and Mexico increased last year compared with the year before)

Putting a phrase like “tense relations” in a headline emphasizes it and may also encourage concern or even alarm among readers. The Washington Post’s headline is another example:

A Trump ally is likely to replace a career diplomat as U.S. ambassador, and Mexicans are worried

The word “worried” is subjective and emotional rather than data-based, and may directly foment concern.

The implications in the coverage promote the notion that the U.S. president is to blame for the ambassador’s resignation and for the reported disagreements between the two countries. While Trump certainly participates (he’s made proposals and comments the Mexican government has strongly disagreed with, e.g. the border wall and comments about Mexican “rapists”), there are other factors that also affect the current state of affairs. Suggesting Trump is the only one to blame may provide for drama and entertainment, but it’s myopic and doesn’t provide a comprehensive understanding of the situation. Ultimately, the blame and focus on “strained relations” could incite fear and uncertainty among citizens of both countries.

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

  • 62% Spun

  • 62% Spun

  • 63% Spun

  • 74% Spun

The Numbers

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

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