The Mugabe coverage: How charged language interferes with informing us
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The Mugabe coverage: How charged language interferes with informing us

November 21, 2017

Based on the articles we analyzed, it would seem that Zimbabwe is in a state of “chaos” and “crisis.” Some in the country may indeed feel that way, and we don’t intend to downplay recent events there. But herein lies part of the problem – it’s difficult to understand what is happening when the articles provide readers with few facts and use colorful, vague language instead.

Our Spin ratings demonstrated the prevalence of such language: for The Guardian, BBC, The New York Times and Fox News, these ratings were 75, 54, 47 and 43 percent, respectively (the higher the percentage, the more spun the article). Here are three examples:

1. The Guardian

“Zimbabwe’s ongoing crisis descended into outright chaos on Sunday …”

In a nutshell, the news is that President Robert Mugabe’s governing party fired him as its leader and he was told if he didn’t step down by noon Monday (which he did not), his party would begin impeachment proceedings. Does that count as a “crisis” and “descend[ing] into outright chaos?” The language is so subjective it’s hard to tell.

2. BBC

“Zimbabwe’s embattled leader Robert Mugabe has vowed to stay in power for several weeks …”

“Embattled” suggests Mugabe’s presidency has been marked by controversy and conflict, but the articles do little to elaborate on what actually took place. Luckily, our Context for Zimbabwe and Mugabe does.

3. The New York Times

Mugabe “ruled Zimbabwe with an iron grip …”

“Iron grip” is vague and subjective and doesn’t provide facts about his presidency. Such information is mostly or completely missing from the coverage. If the coverage provided data instead of spin, readers could look at the facts and decide for themselves whether Mugabe ruled with an “iron grip”: He has led Zimbabwe for 37 years since he was elected in 1980 and was re-elected five times since then. He is also under U.S. and EU sanctions for alleged electoral fraud and human rights abuses.

Why do words like those highlighted above matter in the context of Zimbabwe? Increasing our understanding of other countries can help inform us about the world, gain new perspectives and learn from their successes and mistakes. However, words like “chaos,” “embattled” and “iron grip” can bias our perception of the facts (e.g. words like these may be associated with feelings of fear or anxiety), potentially interfering with rational, impartial knowledge of Zimbabwe and Mugabe, in this case.

Colorful language may be useful for attracting clicks and page views, but The Knife believes that data-based reporting is ideal for promoting evidence-based, rational views of the world around us.

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

  • 43% Spun

  • 54% Spun

  • 57% Spun

  • 75% Spun

Distortion Highlights

  • The coverage we analyzed suggests that Zimbabwe is in a state of “chaos” and “crisis.”
  • This may be the case, but it can be difficult to understand what precisely is happening when few facts are provided and outlets use colorful, vague language instead.
  • Learn how vague language and few facts can interfere with critical thinking and how data-based reporting can help.

Show Me Everything

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Top Spin Words

  • Crisis

    The political crisis in Zimbabwe, which is spreading unease in the continent, will be on the agenda for a summit meeting in Angola on Tuesday … (The New York Times)

    Last week the SADC called for a “constitutional” solution to the crisis … (The Guardian)

    The crisis began when [Mugabe] sacked his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, two weeks ago, angering army commanders who saw it as an attempt to position his wife as his successor. (BBC)

  • Chaos

    Chaos in Zimbabwe after Mugabe fails to announce expected resignation (The Guardian)

  • Decimated

    The purge has in effect decimated the group and underlines the degree to which the overthrow of Mugabe’s 37-year rule has been driven more by competition for power within the Zanu-PF than popular anger at a dictatorial and corrupt regime. (The Guardian)

  • Baffled

    An official close to the talks told The Associated Press the 93-year-old leader will be resigning, but Mugabe baffled the country when he didn’t formally announce his resignation. (Fox News)

  • Rambling

    Mr. Mugabe made the rambling address to the southern African nation about 9 p.m. local time … (The New York Times)

  • Row

    His grip on power has weakened since the military intervened on Wednesday, in a row over who should succeed him. (BBC)

  • Lavish

    As he and his wife remains in their lavish mansion, Mugabe’s allies left or were arrested. (Fox News)

Zimbabwe’s Mugabe gives televised speech, does not resign as president

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe did not announce he would resign during a televised address on Sunday, hours after the ruling party fired him as party leader and said it would impeach him if he did not step down. Mugabe delivered the speech from his residence in Harare, where he’s been under house arrest since the military took control of the government on Nov. 14 and 15. Military generals were at Mugabe’s side during the address.

“The congress is due in a few weeks from now. I will preside over its processes, which must not be possessed by any acts calculated to undermine it or compromise the outcomes in the eyes of the public,” Mugabe said.

On Nov. 6, Mugabe fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Then on Wednesday, the military announced it had taken control of the government and the state broadcaster, and had detained Mugabe and his family the previous day. During his speech on Sunday, Mugabe said, “Whatever the pros and cons of how [the army] went about their operation, I, as commander-in-chief, do acknowledge their concerns.” He did not say the army had violated the constitution.

Earlier on Sunday, the ruling Zanu-PF party’s Central Committee met and fired Mugabe, 93, as the leader of the party. It said Mugabe had until Monday at noon local time to announce his resignation as president or be subject to impeachment proceedings. Impeaching the president requires a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of parliament, BBC reported.

Zanu-PF named Mnangagwa, the former vice president, as the new party leader and its candidate for the 2018 elections. Zanu-PF also expelled Mugabe’s wife Grace, 52, from the party, along with 19 other party members, and dismissed her as head of the women’s league. She has not been seen in public since her husband was placed under house arrest.

There were protests calling for Mugabe’s resignation on Saturday in the capital. BBC reported that tens of thousands of demonstrators attended. Mugabe has led Zimbabwe for the 37 years since it gained independence from Britain in 1980.

Update: Mugabe did not resign before his party’s deadline of noon Monday. Impeachment proceedings could begin when parliament meets on Tuesday.

Update 2: Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe on Tuesday. Speaker of Parliament Jacob Mudenda read out a letter from Mugabe during a session in parliament, in which Mugabe said his resignation was voluntary, and that he had resigned to allow for a “smooth transfer of power.”


The Guardian

“His refusal to go plunges the country into deep uncertainty.”

Mugabe’s party said if he didn’t step down by noon Monday (which he did not), the party would begin impeachment proceedings.

FOX News

“Vast throngs of demonstrators turned Zimbabwe’s capital into a carnival ground on Saturday in a peaceful outpouring of disdain for their longtime leader and calls for him to quit immediately.”

On Saturday, thousands of people were on the streets of Harare calling for Mugabe’s resignation.

The New York Times

“The political crisis in Zimbabwe, which is spreading unease in the continent, will be on the agenda for a summit meeting in Angola on Tuesday …”

The Guardian reports, “The South African Development Community (SADC), headed by South Africa, is to meet in Angola on Tuesday to discuss the situation” in Zimbabwe.

Fact Comparison

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

Mnangagwa is unpopular in parts of the country: He lost his parliamentary seat at least twice, once after being accused of firebombing his opponent’s house, according to an editor of The Zimbabwean newspaper. (The New York Times)

The facts The Times uses to support its claim that Mnangagwa “is unpopular in parts of the country” are not entirely accurate. Let’s break down the Times’ statement:

“He lost his parliamentary seat at least twice.” According to our research, Mnangagwa did not hold a parliamentary seat until 2008 and he only lost his seat once in 2014 when he became vice president (under the new constitution in 2013, Mnangagwa could not hold his seat and the vice presidency at the same time). Prior to holding a seat, Mnangagwa lost two parliamentary elections, one in 2000 and one in 2005 – this may have been what The Times was referring to.

One time he lost “after being accused of firebombing his opponent’s home.” The Knife could not find evidence to back up the firebombing accusation. According to a June 2000 Amnesty International report, Mnangagwa’s opponent, Blessing Chebundo, was allegedly attacked by a “ZANU-PF youth member” during the election that year, but the report doesn’t attribute the attack to Mnangagwa.

Under the Constitution, Mr. Mugabe remains president despite the party’s expulsion. (The New York Times)

This information, which only The New York Times includes, may clarify the legality of Mugabe remaining as president – specifically, that Mugabe remaining president prior to impeachment proceedings is legal. For more information, see our Context for Zimbabwe and Mugabe.


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

This sounds alarming, but what does the “chaos” actually entail in practical terms?

This may be a bit sensational – perhaps many thought he would resign, but likely some saw the possibility that he wouldn’t.

Compare this to the raw facts: He didn’t resign and is remaining as president, which is legal under the constitution. See a difference?

The Numbers

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

View Technical Sheet >