Which news outlets spin the Merkel coverage more: US or European?
Photo by Shutterstock

Which news outlets spin the Merkel coverage more: US or European?

November 21, 2017

NEWS ALERT! There’s been some more “collapsing” of plans and “plunging into crisis” in Europe — in Germany, to be exact.

If you’re not entirely sure what that means, it may be for good reason. Dramatic, subjective and vaguely defined terms like those in red create strong impressions that aren’t backed by much data. So if you were asked to explain what these terms mean, you might be grasping at straws. See how much drama that just brought in? That’s how spin works.

We looked at the latest coverage of German politics, and noticed some outlets employed more spin than others. What happened is German politicians didn’t reach agreement to form a coalition, and although this has effects for the country and Europe, the U.S. outlets took more creative license in describing it. Here’s a visual comparison of each article’s lead sentence, which is representative of how the outlets ranked in our spin ratings. Let the red lead the way.

European outlets

Deutsche Welle: 20% spun

“German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Monday that she was ready to take her Christian Democratic (CDU) party into fresh elections after coalition talks with the Green party and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) failed over the weekend.”

This reports the news sans the spin. Sentences like these earned this outlet the best spin rating of the four.

BBC: 44% spun

“German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she would prefer new elections to leading a minority government, after a breakdown in coalition talks plunged the country into political crisis.”

Terms like these are what raised BBC’s spin rating. They imply negative effects will come from not having formed a coalition, while providing no data to support the implication.

U.S. outlets

The New York Times: 62% spun

“Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany faced the greatest crisis of her career on Monday after negotiations to form a new government collapsed, shaking a country that is Europe’s political and economic anchor.”

The Times’ wording is even more spun than BBC’s: not only is there a supposed crisis, but it’s also “shaken” the continent’s “anchor.”

The Washington Post: 70% spun

“The sudden collapse of talks to form a coalition government left German politics in turmoil Monday, as Chancellor Angela Merkel reckoned with one of the worst crises of her 12-year tenure and signaled that a new election is likely.”

The spin here also supports the idea that only negative outcomes are to be expected, which is the main bias of the four articles. Spin often supports bias.

Lead sentences make for a great comparison because they capture the essence of the news. Leads are also important in that, after headlines, they’re likely the first thing you read, so they can affect the way you take in the rest of the information.

Spin can at times be entertaining and, as noted earlier, it can create powerful impressions, but it does little to inform. In this sense, it may be best reserved for opinion and analyses, rather than news reports.

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

  • 22% Spun

  • 45% Spun

  • 62% Spun

  • 73% Spun

Distortion Highlights

  • When covering events in Europe, do European or U.S. outlets spin the news more?
  • The Knife’s analysis of the Merkel coverage may provide some insight.

Show Me Everything

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Top Spin Words

  • Crisis

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she would prefer new elections to leading a minority government, after a breakdown in coalition talks plunged the country into political crisis. (BBC)

    Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany faced the greatest crisis of her career on Monday after negotiations to form a new government collapsed, shaking a country that is Europe’s political and economic anchor. (The New York Times)

  • Turmoil

    Financial markets reacted calmly to the turmoil in Berlin, calculating that the German economy could power through the uncertainty. (The New York Times)

    The sudden collapse of talks to form a coalition government left German politics in turmoil Monday, as Chancellor Angela Merkel reckoned with one of the worst crises of her 12-year tenure and signaled that a new election is likely. (The Washington Post)

  • Deserted

    Mrs Merkel’s bloc won September’s poll, but many voters deserted the mainstream parties. (BBC)

  • Even more difficult

    Britain is due to get out by March 2019, but instability in Berlin could make the negotiations — already fraughteven more difficult. (The Washington Post)

  • Choppy waters

    After a midday meeting with the chancellor, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier attempted to calm the choppy waters with a speech calling on parties to come back to the negotiating table and avoid another vote after an inconclusive September election. (The Washington Post)

  • Upping the volume

    The unexpected failure triggered a flurry of activity in the normally predictable world of German politics, putting financial markets on edge and upping the volume on previously whispered conversations about how much longer Merkel can last. (The Washington Post)

  • Cobbled together

    First, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will approach other parties to see if a last-ditch coalition can be cobbled together. (Deutsche Welle)

  • Recriminations

    Recriminations of that sort would have to be overcome, if the idea of this coalition were to be revived. (Deutsche Welle)

German government coalition talks fail; options include minority government or new elections

Negotiations to form a coalition government between three of Germany’s political parties ended on Sunday and the Free Democrat Party (FDP) left the talks. The FDP had been negotiating with the Green party and the conservative bloc comprised of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU). FDP leader Christian Lindner said the party “did not take such a decision lightly” and that “it’s better not to govern, than to govern wrongly.” According to German law, the parties could form a minority government or the president could call for new elections.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the CDU, said she was “skeptical” about the idea of leading a minority government and that she believed “new elections would be the better path.”

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has asked the parties to reconsider. According to the German Constitution, without a coalition, the president must nominate a chancellor, and parliament would have up to three rounds of voting to decide on a nominee. If the process required three rounds, the president could then name the final nominee as chancellor, or dissolve parliament and schedule new elections.

Background

The coalition discussion came after Germany’s Sep. 24 election, in which the CDU received 33 percent of the vote, the Social Democrats (SPD) 21 percent, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) 13 percent, the FDP 11 percent and the Green party 9 percent.

The CDU/CSU and SPD had governed in a “grand coalition” since 2013. SPD chairman Martin Schulz said, “In view of the results of the September 24 election, we are not available for a grand coalition.”

Fiction
or
Fact

The New York Times

“At a time when the European Union is facing a host of pressing problems … the possibility of political instability in a normally reliable Germany sent tremors through the continent.”

It’s possible there will be no coalition or majority in the German government for months.

The New York Times

“The crisis erupted seven weeks after the last election …”

The FDP exited negotiations for a potential coalition government on Sunday, seven weeks since the last election.

The New York Times

“Some worry that the AfD could benefit from the current chaos and increase its share of the vote.”

A Forsa poll released last week predicted that the AfD would get 12 percent of the vote in a new election.

The Washington Post

“The unexpected failure triggered a flurry of activity … upping the volume on previously whispered conversations about how much longer Merkel can last.”

Some news outlets cited German politicians who have speculated about how long Merkel will stay in power. The Washington Post did not.

Fact Comparison

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

If no coalition is formed, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier can nominate a chancellor for approval by parliament. If parliament doesn’t approve a chancellor after three rounds of voting, Steinmeier can order new elections. (Deutsche Welle, The New York Times)


Although the inability to form a coalition may be, as President Steinmeier described, “unprecedented,” Germany’s constitution has a system in place for such a situation. This information, which BBC and The Washington Post didn’t include, may dispel assumptions that Germany’s government is “chaotic” or “unstable.”

Both Deutsche Welle and the Times also detail other steps the German government can take when a coalition can’t be formed:

  • Deutsche Welle noted that Steinmeier is bound by the constitution to nominate a new chancellor, if no majority coalition emerges.
  • The Times mentioned the three parliamentary votes for chancellor are determined by a simple majority, wherein the candidate who receives the most votes wins.
  • The Times also said that if parliament doesn’t appoint a new chancellor, the president can either name the chancellor himself or dissolve parliament and order new elections, which must take place within 60 days.

Headlines

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

There may be cause for concern, but based on this headline, it’s not obvious what the crisis is exactly.

How has the “blow” hurt Merkel? Doesn’t say. And isn’t disagreement part of politics?

Let’s be specific: there are two options under German law, a minority government or new elections. Is that so “uncertain”?

The Numbers

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

View Technical Sheet >