From missiles to threats: Comparing the coverage of the Yemen-Saudi conflict
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From missiles to threats: Comparing the coverage of the Yemen-Saudi conflict

November 7, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Saudi-coalition says missile from Yemen is Iranian ‘aggression’; Iran denies involvement

On Monday, the Saudi Arabian-led coalition fighting in Yemen said Iran was partially responsible for a missile launched at the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Saturday. Yemeni Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for Saturday’s missile aimed at the Riyadh airport, and which Saudi forces shot down. The Houthis are at war with a Saudi-led coalition, which supports the overthrown Yemen government.

The Saudi coalition accused Iran of providing the missile to the Houthis, saying the act “constitutes a clear act of aggression” and that it “could rise to be considered as an act of war” against Saudi Arabia. Iran, which supports the Houthis politically, denied it was involved in Saturday’s attack.

Saudi Arabia’s Civil Aviation Authority said the intercepted missile, which left fragments in uninhabited land, did not cause damage to the airport. Colonel Turki al-Maliki, cited by Saudi news network SPA, said the missile was fired from within the Yemeni border at 8:07 p.m. local time, and was destroyed with a surface-to-air Patriot missile. Maliki said there were no reported casualties. On Monday, Saudi Arabia temporarily closed down land borders and air and sea ports to Yemen, which is about 620 miles (1,000 km) from Riyadh.

The Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, citing Saudi Arabian “aggression” in the form of airstrikes and civilian casualties. “The capital cities of countries that continually shell us, targeting innocent civilians, will not be spared from our missiles,” a spokesperson for the rebels said on Saturday. The Houthis said they locally produced their Volcano-variant ballistic missile.

Last week, an airstrike in Yemen that was suspected to be carried out by the Saudi-led coalition killed at least 29 people.

The Saudi-led coalition statement on Monday said examination of the missile debris “confirmed the role of Iran’s regime in manufacturing [this and a previous missile] and smuggling them to the Houthi militias in Yemen for the purpose of attacking the Kingdom, its people, and vital interests.” The coalition said Iran was violating a U.N. Security Council resolution that prohibits the sale of weapons to Yemeni armed groups.

The coalition also said Iran had “direct command” of the Houthis and that Saudi Arabia “reserves its right to respond to Iran in the appropriate time and manner.”

War in Yemen

The Yemeni civil war began in March 2015, when Houthi rebels overthrew President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Saudi Arabia then led a coalition of Sunni Arab states to fight the Houthis and attempt to reinstate Hadi’s internationally-recognized government, which reportedly retains control of the city of Aden, The Associated Press reported. The U.S. is an ally of Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim nation. Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation, says it politically supports the Houthi rebels, who are also Shiite, but denies arming them.

The war has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 40,000, and displaced 3 million others. Most of the deaths have been from Saudi coalition airstrikes, according to Al Jazeera.

For more information on this conflict, click here.

Distortion Highlights

  • Story 1: On Saturday, Yemen fired a missile into Saudi Arabia.
  • Story 2: On Monday, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of supplying that missile, saying it could be considered an act of war.
  • Can you guess which of these stories the media distorted more? You may be surprised.

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

  • Lashed out

    Saudi Arabia has lashed out at Iran over the firing of a ballistic missile towards Riyadh by Houthi rebels in Yemen, citing evidence that Tehran was behind the attack and labelling it a potential “act of war”. (Al Jazeera, story 2)

  • Stalemated

    The stalemated war has killed more than 10,000 civilians and displaced 3 million others, pushing the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine. (AP, story 1)

  • Embroiled

    Yemen is embroiled in a war between Iran-backed Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and the internationally recognized government, which is allied with a Saudi-led military coalition. (AP, story 2)

  • Ramps up tensions

    The coalition’s statement ramps up tensions between the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom and its Shiite rival Iran, both of which have interests in Yemen’s yearslong conflict. (AP, story 2)

  • Rebuke

    The missile fire drew an immediate rebuke from President Donald Trump, who blamed Iran in part for the attack. (AP, story 1)

  • Escalate

    In an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this month, Mohammed Abdul Salam, a spokesman for the Houthi rebels, threatened to escalate operations on the Yemeni-Saudi border and target deep inside the Kingdom. (Al Jazeera, story 1)

  • Push

    The surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh on the weekend also comes in the context of Saudi’s renewed push to confront long-time rival Iran. (Al Jazeera, story 2)

  • Massive

    Concerned by the rise of the Houthi rebels, believed to be backed by regional rival Iran, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni Arab states launched an intervention in 2015 in the form of a massive air campaign aimed at reinstalling President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government. (Al Jazeera, story 1)

For this analysis, we compared two outlets covering recent events in the Yemen-Saudi Arabia conflict. We wanted to see how each reported on Yemen firing a missile into Saudi Arabia (story 1), compared to how each reported on Saudi Arabia accusing Iran for the incident (story 2). The first story includes a measurable act of violence that could have killed many people. In the second, there’s an accusation and a threat. Which of the two do you think the media distorted the most?

It turns out it’s the second story. For instance, The Associated Press’ (AP) coverage of that story was 24 percent more spun than the first. Compare the spin (noted in red) in the outlet’s descriptions of Saudi-Iran relations:

Saudi Arabia accuses its rival, Shiite power Iran, of training and helping arm the rebels. Iran denies that it has provided material support, though it acknowledges its political support of the Houthis. (Story 1, no spin here!)

The coalition’s statement ramps up tensions between the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom and its Shiite rival Iran, both of which have interests in Yemen’s yearslong conflict. (Story 2)

A similar increase in distortion also occurred with Al Jazeera’s coverage, except we found 46 percent more slant in its second story (Saudi accusing Iran). The difference was due to the outlet including better sourcing and more neutral (or unbiased) statements in its first story (missile fired into Saudi Arabia). For instance, of the total 18 sentences in the first story, 10 were neutral. By contrast, of a total 17 sentences, the second story had only one neutral sentence — the rest were biased.

In terms of the total integrity ratings (the overall score for each article), AP’s first story came in at 62 percent, and its second was 40 percent (a higher score means an article is more objective). Al Jazeera’s first story had an 84 percent integrity rating, and its second dropped to 40 percent. That’s quite a difference!

As to why both outlets distorted the second story more, we’re not sure. Maybe it has something to do with the nature of threats, which are vague and unpredictable, leaving more to the imagination compared to an event that’s measurable. Or, it could be that the second story included Saudi Arabia’s statement blaming Iran for a “clear act of aggression.” In any case, we hope one day these types of analyses are made defunct by ethical, data-based reporting.

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

  • 27% Spun

  • 27% Spun

  • 59% Spun

  • 61% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

Associated Press

“The coalition’s statement ramps up tensions between the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom and its Shiite rival Iran, both of which have interests in Yemen’s yearslong conflict.”

The Saudi-led coalition released a statement addressing Saturday’s attack. Saudi Arabia is primarily Sunni Muslim and Iran is primarily Shiite Muslim. The countries support opposing sides in the Yemen conflict.

A-Aljazeera

“The surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh on the weekend also comes in the context of Saudi’s renewed push to confront long-time rival Iran.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned on Saturday while in Saudi Arabia, saying he believed his life was under threat. The Saudi-led coalition called Saturday’s missile a “blatant act of military aggression by the Iranian regime.”

Fact Comparison

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

A [Saudi Coalition] statement issued on Monday via the state news agency SPA said that an examination of the debris “confirmed the role of Iran’s regime in manufacturing [Saturday’s and a previous missile] and smuggling them to the Houthi militias in Yemen for the purpose of attacking the Kingdom, its people, and vital interests.” (Al Jazeera)


Although the statement doesn’t explain how the debris confirms Iran’s alleged role, this information may provide some insight into why Saudi Arabia continues to attribute the missile launch to Iran, rather than the Houthis. AP doesn’t mention the examination of debris or its alleged connection to Iran.

The statement said Iran was violating the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, which prohibits states from supplying weapons to Yemeni armed groups. (Al Jazeera)


This information suggests that if Iran is found to have supplied the Houthis in Yemen with weapons, this information suggests the U.N. may have the right to take action against Iran for violating Resolution 2216. AP doesn’t mention the potential U.N. violation.

Although the resolution doesn’t specify what actions might be taken against a government found to have supplied Yemeni fighters, it directs the U.N.’s sanctions committee to “take appropriate action on information regarding alleged non-compliance.”

The statement noted that Saudi Arabia would temporarily close all Yemeni ground, air and sea ports while investigating how the missiles were brought in. (Al Jazeera)


AP mentions Saudi Arabia’s closure of Yemeni ports, but it doesn’t give the reason: to investigate how the missiles allegedly were brought in. Without this, people may assume the closures are retaliatory or for some other non-stated purpose.

Iran has backed the Houthis, but denies arming them.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard chief, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said Iran can’t transfer rockets to Yemen and said that the missiles were made there.
The Houthi militants have said their Volcano-variant ballistic missile is locally produced. (AP)


Al Jazeera only notes that Iran denied involvement in Saturday’s missile attack. It doesn’t include Iran and the Houthis saying the missiles were produced in Yemen, or Iran’s general denial of arming the Houthi. The exclusion of this data may bias people toward assuming that Saudi Arabia’s claims against Iran are correct.

Headlines

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

Relates Riyadh to murders in Nazi Germany in a dishonorable way.

As history buffs might recall, the “Night of Long Knives” is the name given to a few days in 1934 when Adolf Hitler had leaders of the SA paramilitary group killed. BBC may be describing the Saudi arrests made by an anti-corruption body on Saturday, which the article reported. If so, it likens arrests to murders, and Saudi Arabia’s behavior to Nazi Germany’s. Is that a fair comparison?

Inaccurately says Saudis compare the Aden attack to an ‘act of war.’

The Saudi-coalition statement called the missile targeted at Riyadh a possible “act of war.” Separately, there was an attack in Aden, Yemen, that was claimed by an Islamic State-affiliate. The headline inaccurately conflates the two.

Imprecise and dramatic, saying “tensions rise.”

Recent events are probably going to affect Saudi-Iranian relations, but saying “regional tensions rise” isn’t precise and doesn’t tell us what the effect may be.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • Saudi Arabia and the U.S. allege that Iran is to blame for the missile launch, both by supplying the missile and supporting the Houthis in their actions.
  • “Tensions” in the Middle East are escalating after Saturday’s attack, and Iran is principally to blame. With the U.S. involved, this will likely escalate into a war.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Whether or not Iran is actually responsible for the attack, the media’s bias may support the perception that Saudi Arabia should control the region, or that the Trump administration’s contention that Iran is violating the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) is correct, a claim Iran denies. This blame points to Iran as the instigator of the conflict, which is unproven, and it overlooks the fact that the Houthi attack is an effect of the ongoing dispute over Yemen’s governance.
  • All parties involved share responsibility for both causing and changing the conflict. The situation may still be resolved through non-violent, diplomatic means.

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