The news on North Korea is spun again. Here’s why it matters.
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The news on North Korea is spun again. Here’s why it matters.

August 29, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

North Korea fires missile over Japan into the ocean

On Tuesday morning, North Korea launched a ballistic missile that flew over Japan’s Hokkaido island and into the sea off its eastern coast. According to the South Korean military, the missile was fired from near the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and traveled more than 1,678 miles (2,700 km) with a maximum altitude of around 342 miles (550 km). Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Twitter that the missile was fired at 5:58 a.m. local time, and flew for 14 minutes before landing in the water about 730 miles off the coast of Hokkaido island at 6:12 a.m. He also said the missile separated into three pieces during its flight.

Abe also gave a statement saying Japan “was prepared to take all the measures to protect people’s lives,” and had “requested an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council.”

Past North Korean missiles over Japan

North Korea has, in the past, twice fired rockets that traveled over Japan, once in 1998 and once in 2009. North Korea claimed these launches were for satellites, not weapons.

Since Kim Jong Un came to power in North Korea in 2011, there have been over 80 missile launches, according to The New York Times. In July of this year, the country fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles that appeared capable of reaching Europe and North America. Earlier this month, North Korea drafted plans to launch four missiles towards the island of Guam, which is a U.S. territory. Kim said he decided not to fire the missiles and to “watch [the “Yankees”] a little more.” On Friday and Saturday last week, North Korea fired three short-range missiles off its eastern coast into the water, according to the U.S. military.

The United Nations has banned North Korea (a U.N. member) from launching missiles or developing nuclear weapons, and has implemented international sanctions on the country, as well as on specific North Korean individuals and entities.

U.S. and South Korean response

Officials at the Pentagon said “North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) determined [Tuesday’s] missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America.”

South Korea confirmed the missile flew over Japan, and the South Korean National Security Council (NSC) held a meeting to discuss the situation.

Distortion Highlights

  • North Korea fired a missile over Japan — the first time it’s done this under Kim Jong Un’s rule.
  • One of The Knife’s broken records: dramatized or “spun” reporting isn’t ideal to inform the public, especially in these kinds of situations.
  • Here’s another look at why spin and journalism don’t mix.

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

  • Drawing fury

    North Korea fires missile over Japan drawing fury (BBC)

  • Favorite rhetorical target

    The launch poses a further challenge, in particular, to President Trump, who has made North Korea a favorite rhetorical target. (The Washington Post)

  • Escalation

    The launches mark a dangerous new escalation from Kim’s regime. (The Washington Post)

    Given the missile’s flight path the test is being seen as an escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula. (BBC)

    It was the second time in four days that the North Korean authorities, defying an escalation in international sanctions and warnings from President Trump, had launched a missile. (The New York Times)

  • Dampened Hopes

    But the missile tests on Saturday dampened hopes in Seoul and Washington that North Korea would restrain from weapons tests to help pave the way for possible dialogue. (The New York Times)

  • Anxiety

    But the anxiety had appeared to ease somewhat after the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, later said he would wait a while, watching the United States behavior, before deciding whether to approve his military’s plan to launch missiles toward Guam. (The New York Times)

  • Defiance

    Still, the latest launches, coming after North Korea last month launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles theoretically capable of reaching the mainland United States, underscore both Kim’s defiance of the international community and his determination to press ahead with his missile program. (The Washington Post)

  • Wave

    There has a been a wave of North Korean missile tests recently but firing projectiles over Japan is rare. (BBC)

  • Unrelentingly

    But Kim has pressed ahead unrelentingly. (The Washington Post)

Readers may be used to sensational reporting, as the media often mixes facts with opinion and dramatic language (spin). The most recent coverage of North Korea makes another case for injecting rigor back into journalistic standards. Are you up for a quick experiment?

Read the following sets of headlines and lead sentences from two large U.S. news outlets while noticing your impression (or how you feel) about each.

1. North Korea fires missile over Japan, Pentagon confirms (Fox)

North Korea fired a missile over Japan, the Pentagon confirmed on Monday.

2. North Korean missile flies over Japan, escalating tensions and prompting an angry response from Tokyo (The Washington Post)

North Korea launched a ballistic missile Tuesday morning that flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the most brazen provocation of Kim Jong Un’s five-year-long rule and one that will reignite tensions between Pyongyang and the outside world.

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

  • 19% Spun

  • 43% Spun

  • 49% Spun

  • 79% Spun

See and feel the difference? You may notice The Washington Post’s rendition of events was more personal or emotional compared to Fox News’ article. Now, it’s certainly fair to say there are “tensions,” but the term is vague and doesn’t measurably describe the situation or relations between the parties involved in a way everyone can understand, much less describe how they’re “escalating.”

We’ve made this point before, specifically on the news of North Korea — see here, here and here. But consider another viewpoint on why it matters.

Fox News’ excerpt gives readers the facts about what’s happening, and the facts speak for themselves. Truth is, the risk is significant and the situation could lead to destruction on a broad scale if it’s mishandled. We don’t know what will happen, and it’s important for us to be informed about it. But should readers freak out about it? That’s where coverage like the Post’s can tip the balance — the added spin can stir up emotions while readers take in the news and make decisions based on it. Why might this be a problem?

Emotions can distort the way we take in, interpret and use facts. If we get wrapped up or “lost” in emotion, it’s easier to:

  • Cloud our judgement and not critically evaluate the facts, the actual risks or threats (if any). We may be more likely to make impulsive or premature decisions based on the information we read or hear.
  • Fixate on the emotion, and see people as objects who stand in our way, as opposed to human beings. This loss of scope may be what promotes things like prejudice, violence, crime and even war.
  • Distract away from the root of an issue or conflict. If we lose sight of the cause and focus only on effects or circumstances instead, we’re likely to perpetuate the conflict, from the interpersonal to the international level.

And don’t get us wrong: emotions are great. Experiencing them is one of the reasons most people enjoy the arts and entertainment, but hard news isn’t either of those things. The media can bring people news that informs and empowers, but ideally it can stick to the facts.

Fiction
or
Fact

The Washington Post

“North Korea launched a ballistic missile Tuesday morning that flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the most brazen provocation of Kim Jong Un’s five-year-long rule.”

The missile travelled over Japan.

The New York Times

“That threat, together with Mr. Trump’s warning that the United States would bring down “fire and fury” if the North didn’t stand down, has significantly raised tensions in the region.”

North Korea drafted plans to fire four missiles near Guam. Trump said the U.S. would bring “fire and fury” if the North launched them.

Fact Comparison

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

The missile flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. (BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post)


Describing the trajectory of the missile in such detail may deter people from assuming it was launched in the direction of Guam, which lies southeast of Japan (North Korea has said it had plans to launch a missile near Guam). But Fox News doesn’t mention the missile’s trajectory. It describes the trajectory as “east,” which lacks specificity and could give the impression the missile may have been sent toward Guam.

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 response(s) to the missile launch.

This headline doesn’t say who had the apparent “fury” or what they did in response. What does “fury” mean, in a practical sense, anyway?

Implies North Korea aimed at Japan.

This misrepresents what happened. The missile went over Japan, not “at” Japan.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • Tensions are escalating between North Korea and South Korea, Japan and the U.S.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • “Tensions” in the conflict, if it were possible to objectively quantify them, have existed and fluctuated since June 1950, when the war between North Korea and South Korea began (the two signed an armistice in 1953, but no peace treaty). What specifically makes these “tensions” different from other rises and falls in the past? As The New York Times points out, there have been more than 80 missile tests since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011. The more recent tests may indicate the North has or is getting closer to launching nuclear ICBMs, but there’s little information as to how close it is. Drawing attention to this missing data may help readers better assess the possibility of an armed conflict with North Korea.