The news changed, but the spin on North Korea didn’t
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The news changed, but the spin on North Korea didn’t

August 16, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

North Korea says it will not fire missiles near Guam, will ‘watch’ US ‘a little more’

On Tuesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un had reviewed plans to fire four missiles towards the island of Guam, a U.S. territory, and did not give orders to fire, saying he would “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees.”

Last Thursday, KCNA had reported the details of its plan, including the trajectory of the missiles that would be launched from North Korea, over Japan, and into waters 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 km) off the coast of Guam.

Guam is an island in the Pacific Ocean that is home to about 163,000 people, including 6,000 U.S. troops. It lies approximately 1,988 miles (3,200 km) from North Korea.

Sanctions and denuclearization

Earlier this month, the United Nations approved new economic sanctions against North Korea, a U.N. member. The sanctions could reduce its annual export revenue by an estimated $1 billion, a third of its total export revenue. The sanctions were a response to the country’s ongoing nuclear and missile development efforts, which the U.N. has prohibited since 2006.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said “the North Korean nuclear program should absolutely be solved peacefully, and the (South Korean) government and the U.S. government don’t have a different position on this.”

U.S. General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. military’s “priority is to support our government’s efforts to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through diplomatic and economic pressure. We are preparing a military option in case such efforts fail.”

Other events

South Korea and the U.S. have plans to conduct joint military exercises on the Korean Peninsula starting Monday.

According to the KCNA report, Kim said that “if the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity, testing the self-restraint of the DPRK, the latter will make an important decision as it already declared.”

Distortion Highlights

  • The news on North Korea has changed slightly: Kim Jong Un did not give orders to launch missiles near Guam.
  • Should you still be worried anyway? Some of the media seems to think so.
  • See how spin and other distortions are used to keep the “threat” alive.

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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

  • Tamp down fears

    Mr. Kim’s decision to wait “a little more” before ordering the launchings represented a slight ratcheting down of tensions and came after some of Mr. Trump’s top aides on Monday tried to tamp down fears of a clash after his threat to rainfire and fury” on North Korea. (The New York Times)

  • Deepening crisis

    North Korea’s military on Tuesday presented leader Kim Jong Un with plans to launch missiles into waters near Guam and “wring the windpipes of the Yankees,” even as both Koreas and the United States signaled their willingness to avert a deepening crisis, with each suggesting a path toward negotiations. (AP)

  • Ease anxiety

    The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, on Monday met with senior South Korean military and political officials and the local media, and made comments that appeared to be an attempt to ease anxiety while also showing a willingness to back Trump’s warnings if need be. (AP)

  • Tough talk

    Even with North Korea and the Trump administration exchanging tough talk, back-channel diplomatic contacts between the countries have continued, The Associated Press reported Saturday. (AP)

  • Increasingly bitter

    This latest report points to a pause in the increasingly bitter war of words. (BBC)

  • Puppet

    South Korea is often criticised by its northern neighbour for being a puppet of the US, so this could also be a veiled message to America to tone down the rhetoric. (BBC)

  • Urges/urged

    South Korean President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, a liberal who favors engagement with the North, urged North Korea to stop provocations and to commit to talks over its nuclear weapons program. (AP)

    The South Korean leader urged North Korea to help create momentum toward dialogue by not conducting any more nuclear or missile tests. (The New York Times)

    South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in meanwhile has urged the US not to launch an attack on the Korean peninsula without its consent, saying “no one may decide to take military action without the consent” of the South. (BBC)

  • Provocative/provocations

    Lobbing missiles toward Guam, a major U.S. military hub in the Pacific, would be a deeply provocative act from the U.S. perspective, and a miscalculation on either side could lead to a military clash. (AP)

    Signs of an easing in tension on the Korean peninsula helped stock markets rally for a second day running even as the United States and South Korea prepared for more joint military drills, which infuriate the North, and experts warned it could still go ahead with its provocative plan. (Reuters)

    Kim said the United States must “make a proper option first and show it through action, as it committed provocations after introducing huge nuclear strategic equipment into the vicinity of the peninsula” and that it “should stop at once arrogant provocations” against North Korea, state media said. (AP)

  • Rhetoric

    North Korea Holds off on Guam missile plan as China urgesbrakes’ on rhetoric (Reuters)

    As the exchange of combative rhetoric intensified between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, Mr. Moon and his office have issued a steady stream of statements opposing any armed conflict on the peninsula. (The New York Times)

    Last week’s threat against Guam escalated the sharp rhetoric being exchanged between the two sides. (BBC)

    But, crucially, the report also said that Mr Kim would watch the US before making any decision, signalling an apparent deceleration in the provocative rhetoric. (BBC)

Lately, it seems no matter how the news on North Korea develops, the “tensions” reported by the media just keep rising. Yet the news coming out of North Korea yesterday suggested a de-escalation in the conflict—Kim Jong Un said he won’t fire missiles. Shouldn’t the media coverage be less dramatic?

There’s a reality to the threat North Korea poses, but there’s also what the media adds to it. Through dramatic language (noted here in red) and a few other distortions, the coverage kept the sensational part of the “threat” alive and well in spite of the news. Here are three examples.

Correspondents say that after days of menacing threats it might seem that Kim Jong-un could be in the mood to finally hit the pause buttonbut in a nation as secretive as North Korea, one can never be sure. (BBC)

The BBC’s spin is vague and figurative, a combination that can play on one’s imagination and fear. If, for example, the outlet provided data on the North’s threats over the years, as compared to its actions, it would give a very different impression. This sentence also plants doubt through the phrase “one can never be sure.” It’s true, but not just about North Korea — we can’t be sure about anything. The question is, why draw attention to it? Here’s a clue: re-read the sentence above, omit the part after the “but” and notice the difference.

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

  • 50% Spun

  • 59% Spun

  • 64% Spun

  • 82% Spun

Mr. Kim’s decision to wait “a little more” before ordering the launchings represented a slight ratcheting down of tensions and came after some of Mr. Trump’s top aides on Monday tried to tamp down fears of a clash after his threat to rain fire and fury” on North Korea. (The New York Times)

Here, the North’s decision to stand down is juxtaposed with the notions of “tensions” and “fears of a clash.” However, comparing the data of what happened to the spin, the latter can easily outweigh it, especially when there’s repetition: the word “tensions” is mentioned four times in the article.

The tentative interest in diplomacy follows unusually combative threats between President Donald Trump and North Korea amid worries that Pyongyang is nearing its long-sought goal of accurately being able to send a nuclear missile to the U.S. mainland. Next week’s start of U.S.-South Korean military exercises that enrage the North each year makes it unclear, however, if diplomacy will prevail. (AP)

This excerpt from AP is a hybrid of the above two. Accompanying the possibility of diplomacy are reminders of “worries” and potential destruction. The spin evokes fear and uncertainty, and the implications about what could happen next week don’t look very promising either.

The situation with North Korea is real, and it’s something officials around the world are trying to assess and negotiate. The media has a responsibility to provide any new data on the matter, so readers can be informed, but it becomes problematic when opinion and sensationalism are added. In this particular case, some of the information that comes directly from the sources (like North Korea’s statement) is distorted enough as it is. The media augments the sensationalism by adding spin, rather than grounding it with the available data on North Korea’s nuclear threats.

If any of the above statements were stripped of spin and distortion, as we do in our Raw Data, would it put you at an informational disadvantage? Maybe it would create an entertainment deficit, but that’s about it. But we have movies for that, don’t we?


The New York Times

“Although Mr. Moon’s latest statement did not mention Mr. Trump by name, it marked his strongest expression of disapproval of military options being considered by Washington.”

Moon said, “No one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement.”

The New York Times

“As the exchange of combative rhetoric intensified between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, Mr. Moon and his office have issued a steady stream of statements opposing any armed conflict on the peninsula.”

Trump and Kim have made statements, sometimes in response to each other. Moon’s administration has issued statements about the North.

Fact Comparison

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

The North said it would watch what “the foolish Yankees” do before taking a decision. (BBC)

The English-language version of North Korea’s statement didn’t call “Yankees” “foolish” but rather referred to their actions as such. The North said its leader, Kim Jong-un, would “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees.” Both AP and The New York Times included the correctly ordered statement.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said no U.S. military action on the Korean Peninsula could be taken without Seoul’s consent. (All four outlets.)

The articles don’t discuss whether the U.S. usually consults with its allies before engaging in military activity. Yet several recent statements made by U.S. officials suggest that the U.S. does, and that South Korea would be involved in any decision about military action on the Korean peninsula. Not including this information may encourage inaccurate assumptions about how the U.S. works with its allies, or whether South Korea will have the opportunity to give its “consent.”

For example, in an Aug. 14 press conference, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was asked how the U.S. would respond if North Korea fires against Guam. Mattis said, “You can’t make all those kinds of decisions in advance. There’s a host of things going on. There’s allies that we consult with, as the president made very clear last week. We talked about our allies repeatedly in a statement. That’s something we have to think of.”

That same day, Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “We’re Holding Pyongyang to Account.” The article said, “The U.S. will continue to work with our allies and partners to deepen diplomatic and military cooperation.”


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

Suggests North Korea is going to act on the “Guam threat” at a later time.

Kim didn’t say whether he will fire missiles near Guam. But the Times’ headline suggests it’s more likely he will. This kind of conjecture may keep readers on edge, but it does little to inform them about the situation.  

May imply Mattis’ and Trump’s “warnings” caused Kim to “back down.”

There’s no way to know why Kim decided against firing the missiles, but suggesting it was because of Mattis and Trump could portray them in a position of superiority or control.

May mislead readers by portraying the U.S. as “winning.”

While the New York Times may make conflict seem likely to happen, Breitbart could be oversimplifying the situation and giving readers false hope that the conflict is nearing resolution.