One request for the Lebanon coverage: More data, please
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One request for the Lebanon coverage: More data, please

November 5, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigns

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned on Saturday, via a televised address from Saudi Arabia, saying, “I sensed what is being woven in secret to target my life.” He also spoke of alleged Iranian influence over the Lebanese government, saying Iran had created “a state within a state” in Lebanon. This may be a reference to Hezbollah, a political and militant group in Lebanon that is supported by Iran. Iran responded to Hariri’s accusations, saying they were “unfounded.”

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said that Hariri had told him about the resignation. On Sunday, palace sources said the president would not accept Hariri’s resignation, and that it would be discussed further when he returns to Lebanon, according to Reuters.

According to the 1943 National Pact, Lebanon has a power sharing system, which requires the president to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister to be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament, a Shiite Muslim.

Hariri, 47, served as prime minister from 2009 to 2011 before taking up this appointment again in December 2016. He is a Sunni Muslim, as per the National Pact, and is allied with Saudi Arabia. As prime minister, he was head of a 30-member “national unity cabinet” that included members of different political groups, including Hezbollah.

Hariri’s father, Rafik Hariri, was Lebanon’s prime minister from 1992 to 1998, and 2000 to 2004. The elder Hariri was assassinated in 2005, and the U.N.’s International Court of Justice is trying Hezbollah operatives for his murder.

Aoun, 82, was elected president in October 2016 after Hariri endorsed him. For two years before Aoun was elected, Lebanon did not have a president because the appointment requires a majority vote in parliament and there was a lack of consensus. Aoun is a Christian, as per the National Pact, and is allied with Hezbollah.

For more information about the relevant political groups and alliances, click here.

Distortion Highlights

  • Unless you’re well versed in Middle East politics, you may find the coverage we analyzed on the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister hard to follow.
  • That’s in part due to missing information that would help better understand the situation.
  • The other part is due to spin, which there was a lot of — up to 62 percent of an article to be exact.

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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

  • Widespread concerns

    It also stirred widespread concerns about the dangers of conflict in Lebanon, which had become a surprise beacon of relative stability in the region throughout the turmoil of recent years. (The Washington Post)

  • Crisis

    Lebanon’s Prime Minister resigns, plunging nation into new political crisis. (CNN)

  • Bewildered

    It’s still not clear why he announced his decision in Saudi Arabia – an extraordinary move that left even his own MPs bewildered. (BBC)

  • Chasm of uncertainty

    The prime minister’s resignation has opened up a chasm of uncertainty in Lebanon. (BBC)

  • Already Fractured

    Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned Saturday during a trip to Saudi Arabia, saying his life was in danger, and creating a leadership vacuum in an already politically fractured country. (CNN)

  • Shaky

    The resignation signaled an end to the shaky alliance that had underpinned Lebanon’s government between Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who is a longtime ally of Saudi Arabia, and the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which is backed by Iran. (The Washington Post)

  • Stunning

    But with this stunning resignation, many Lebanese will now fear that their country is firmly in the crosshairs of the two regional superpowers. (BBC)

  • Fiercely criticising

    Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has resigned, saying in a televised broadcast from Saudi Arabia that he feared for his life, while also fiercely criticising Iran. (BBC)

  • Convulsing

    The arrangement had helped Lebanon keep a distance from the violence convulsing neighboring Syria and the wider region – but it had also stirred deepening concerns among Iran’s foes at the growing level of Iranian influence in the country. (The Washington Post)

When you read that a “beacon of stability” in the Middle East (Lebanon) has been “plunged into a political crisis,” you might be alarmed, but does it give you a good sense of what’s happening there? The resignation of Saad Hariri was unexpected, and it may have negative consequences for the country, but the outlets we analyzed didn’t provide specific data as to why there may be political or economic risks, or possible conflict. Instead, they used spin terms (dramatic or vague language, noted below in red) and they also left out data that could help better understand the situation. Here’s are two similar examples.

[The resignation] also stirred widespread concerns about the dangers of conflict in Lebanon, which had become a surprise beacon of relative stability in the region throughout the turmoil of recent years. (The Washington Post)

But with this stunning resignation, many Lebanese will now fear that their country is firmly in the crosshairs of the two regional superpowers. (BBC)

Here, the spin conveys that Hariri’s resignation may lead to internal and external conflict, but the outlets don’t specify what those conflicts could be. The outlets do include some information about the political and religious differences within Lebanon, and politicians’ alliances to opponents Saudi Arabia and Iran, but the rest is left to readers’ imaginations.

Al Jazeera’s coverage mostly consisted of experts who commented on the situation. For instance, a Lebanese political analyst said, “[The resignation] comes in light of imminent American sanctions against Lebanon, certain threats coming from Israel and escalation by the Saudis.” And the outlet leaves it at that. Unless you’re well versed in Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics, the vagueness of these terms conveys a problem, but without providing precise data.

Also in terms of missing data, some outlets include points others don’t. For example, the Post wrote that Israel “welcomed” Hariri’s decision, adding that the country “has been threatening in recent months to go to war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Al Jazeera didn’t include this, so its mention of “certain threats,” as noted above, is more difficult to grasp.

Similarly, CNN wrote that Hezbollah’s “political wing is the most powerful bloc in Lebanon’s coalition government”. While “most powerful” isn’t as precise as saying the percentage of positions Hezbollah holds in government, it still conveys the reported importance the group has. The other outlets didn’t include this information, however. So to have a more complete understanding of this story, you’d have to read more than one article, and probably research other sources.

The media doesn’t have a responsibility to play the role of an encyclopedia. But if the goal is to inform readers of an event, it’s best to include enough context to understand the situation, and preferably to report with data, as opposed to spin.

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

  • 49% Spun

  • 55% Spun

  • 60% Spun

  • 62% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

BBC News

“The prime minister’s resignation has opened up a chasm of uncertainty in Lebanon.”

It is not yet known who will fill the vacancy left by Hariri. Under the National Pact agreement, it must be a Sunni Muslim.

CNN

“Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned Saturday … creating a leadership vacuum in an already politically fractured country.”

Hariri resigned on Saturday.

Fact Comparison

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

Hariri headed a coalition government that included Hezbollah. (CNN, BBC, Washington Post)


Al Jazeera doesn’t include that Hezbollah was part of the government Hariri led. Omitting information that clarifies that Hezbollah is participating in Lebanon’s democratically-elected government could suggest Hezbollah is solely a terrorist organization, which the U.S. alleges it is, and not a legitimate political party.

Hezbollah denies involvement in the killing of Rafik Hariri. (CNN)


All four outlets include information that the U.N. and others have claimed Hezbollah is responsible for assassinating former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Only CNN reports that Hezbollah denies this claim. Omitting this could bias people towards assuming the indictment by the U.N.’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon is correct, before the trial has concluded.

Headlines

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

Dramatizes the potential effects of Hariri’s resignation.

There’s a vacancy for prime minister and other things have happened, or may happen, because of the resignation. Instead of calling it a “crisis,” it would be more informative for the headline to define what specific problems have come up.

States Lebanon is in a particular state, in this case, “fragile.”

The term “fragile” is relative and subjective, and the headline also doesn’t say exactly how the resignation could lead to “destabilization,” or what that means.

Sensationalizes the speculation about a potential war.

The “spectre” of war may inspire fear, but this headline doesn’t explain who would go to war or what the war would be about.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • Hariri’s resignation will increase tensions in the region and will possibly lead to conflict or violence in Lebanon and the region.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • We don’t yet know what impact Hariri’s resignation may have on Lebanon or the region — his resignation may not change the broader power-structure among Arab nations. It’s also possible that Lebanon could move forward diplomatically with the other countries. For instance, Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s leader of the Druze and the Progressive Socialist Party, is calling for dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

The media implies Hariri’s resignation will increase regional “tensions” and cause political problems for Lebanon, but it doesn’t explain why. In this section we provide some background information that might provide a better understanding of Lebanese politics and related alliances.

Lebanon at a glance

Lebanon is a country located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. It is approximately the same size as Massachusetts. Lebanon is bordered by Israel to the south, and Syria to the east and north. Its population of 6.2 million is 54 percent Muslim, 40.5 percent Christian and 5.6 percent Druze. Of the Muslims, half are Sunni and half are Shiite Muslims.

Historically, the country was part of the Ottoman Empire, and after WWI the League of Nations gave France a mandate to govern the area. In 1943, Lebanon declared independence and the last French troops left the country three years later.

In the mid-1970s, conflicts among the different religious groups turned violent and a civil war, which lasted until 1989, began. Both Syrian troops and Israel became involved in the fighting. A tentative peace agreement was reached in 1989, and fighting ceased in 1990.

Politics

Lebanon is a parliamentary republic with a unicameral parliament called the “National Assembly.” Members are elected to four-year terms. Seats are allocated equally among Muslims and Christians, with each group electing 64 of parliament’s 128 seats.  

The head of state is the president, who must be elected by a two-thirds majority in the Assembly. Due to this requirement, Lebanon was without a head of state for more than two years between 2014 and 2016, as the assembly couldn’t agree on a candidate, until incumbent President Aoun was elected in October 2016. The Lebanese constitution states the Assembly cannot operate until it elects a president when the position is vacant. Given this, the Assembly has extended its own mandate twice since 2013 without holding regular elections. The president is responsible for appointing the prime minister and dissolving the parliament.

Hezbollah

Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim political and militant group in Lebanon that is backed by Iran. The group is involved in conflicts outside of Lebanon. For instance, thousands of Hezbollah fighters travelled to Syria to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the Syrian war. Hezbollah has also sent fighters to allies in Iraq and Yemen.

The U.S. has designated Hezbollah a terrorist group.

Saudi Arabia and Iran

Saudi Arabia and Iran disagree on various issues, including the correct interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia follows a version of Sunni Islam, and Iran is mainly Shiite. The countries have the two largest economies in the Middle East, and they have been in conflict over political influence in the region and export strategies for the Middle East’s oil and gas reserves. In the Syrian conflict, Iran has backed al-Assad, and Saudi Arabia has supported the opposition.

Israel

In July 2006, Israel and Lebanon engaged in a 34-day military conflict that was precipitated by a cross-border attack carried out by Hezbollah militants on an Israeli military patrol in Israeli territory. The U.N. brokered the ceasefire, and has supplied peacekeepers to patrol their shared border since then.

Israeli and Hezbollah officials have exchanged threats over the years, suggesting the possibility of another war. The two sides claim violations of the rules of war in the Syrian conflict. Israel has also cited concerns that Hezbollah has succeeded in building infrastructure near the Golan Heights, which Israel occupies. And Lebanon has cited a territorial dispute involving lands that extend from Lebanon to the Iraqi border.

Iran is also an adversary of Israel.

United States

In 2007, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on people who are allegedly “undermining the sovereignty of Lebanon or its democratic processes and institutions.” Sanctionable actions include “politically motivated violence and intimidation, to reassert Syrian control or contribute to Syrian interference in Lebanon.” The regulation allows the U.S. to block the property and interests in property of persons included on the executive order. Although the U.S. opposes Hezbollah, it is an ally of Lebanon, as well as Saudi Arabia and Israel; it is not an ally of Iran.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica, CIA Factbook, The Washington Post, Library of Congress