Slant in the news of Russia’s reported killing of IS’ leader
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Slant in the news of Russia’s reported killing of IS’ leader

June 16, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Russia investigating whether IS leader Baghdadi killed in airstrike

The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday it is investigating whether Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a May 28 airstrike in Raqqa, Syria. The ministry said information that is “being verified via different channels” suggests al-Baghdadi was among those killed. A spokesman for the United States-led coalition said, “We cannot confirm these reports at this time.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said the SU-35 and SU-34 jets used in the airstrike are estimated to have “destroyed high-ranking commanders” of the “so-called military council of the IS,” and “30 middle ranking field commanders and up to 300 militants who were their bodyguards.” Among them were reportedly IS leaders Suleiman al-Sauah, Abu al-Khadji and Ibrahim al-Naef al-Khadj. Media outlets also cite Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as saying, “I don’t have a 100-percent confirmation of the information.”

According to media outlets, al-Baghdadi was born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai in Iraq in 1971. He became head of the Islamic State in 2010, and a video released in June 2014 shows al-Baghdadi announcing IS an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq. A caliphate is defined as a group led by a “successor of Muhammad as temporal and spiritual head of Islam” (Merriam-Webster).

Russia has been involved in the Syrian civil war since September 2015. According to The New York Times, Russia has the stated goal of “fighting the Islamic State,” to keep it from Muslim populations in southern Russia.

Sources used in this analysis: AP, CNN, Tass, The New York Times

Note from the Editors: This analysis was created during beta testing, which may account for minor imprecisions. Past rating standards may have also applied.

Distortion Highlights

  • For some, the news about Russia’s possible killing of the Islamic State’s leader may be big news.
  • The articles we analyzed present some information that questions or could counter the veracity of this yet-to-be-confirmed event, but none present information that sheds light on faulty underlying assumptions.
  • This analysis provides tools to identify and start to debunk faulty assumptions.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Reign of terror

    The extremist group brought a reign of terror and intimidation into areas where they gained control. (CNN)

  • wreak havoc

    Their relocation could extend the group’s ability to wreak havoc in the region and beyond for months to come. (AP)

  • Blow

    The extent to which Mr. Baghdadi exerted day-to-day control over the Islamic State’s activities is not fully clear, but his death would be a major blow, easily the most prominent since Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, was killed in an American operation in Pakistan in 2011. (The New York Times)

    Russia said Friday it was verifying whether it had killed the leader of the Islamic State group in an airstrike targeting a meeting of IS leaders just outside the group’s de facto capital in Syria, dealing a potentially severe blow to the extremist group as it fights to hang on to its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. (AP)

    “If he has been killed, of course it would deal a big blow to the group, but let’s just look at the past few weeks — we’ve had major terror attacks in London, in Baghdad, in Tehran, in Kabul.” (CNN)

    Alexei Pushkov, the head of the committee for information policies at the upper house of the Russian parliament tweeted that “if confirmed, al-Baghdadi’s death will be a powerful blow to the IS. (AP)

  • Sow doubt

    A claim that the terrorist leader had been killed, regardless of the evidence, would sow doubt among Islamic State fighters. (The New York Times)

  • Justification

    The killing of the Islamic State’s leader, if confirmed, would help bolster Russia’s initial justification for its intervention — that its goal all along was to fight terrorism. (The New York Times)

  • Exploited

    After the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, Syria became a fertile ground for jihadists like Mr. Baghdadi, who exploited the power vacuum left by the violent challenge to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. (The New York Times)

  • Sow Terror

    The group also displayed a sophisticated command of social media to recruit potential jihadists from around the world, and to sow terror in the West. (The New York Times)

  • Long Struggle

    The Russian statement was itself written cautiously, suggesting that the military remained uncertain about whether its strike had killed Mr. Baghdadi, a prize sought by several countries in the long struggle against the Islamic State. (The New York Times)

Today, news outlets reported Russia’s possible killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Considering he’s the head of the Islamic State (IS), a group that has authored and claimed responsibility for many violent attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere, this could be big, BIG news. However, similar to yesterday’s Knife analysis on the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, this coverage is limited because of its slant.

For this story, we analyzed one Russian state news agency, TASS, as well as CNN, The Associated Press (AP) and The New York Times. The Times and TASS were the most slanted, in that order, followed by CNN and then AP. By “slant” we’re referring to the selective assembly of information, which considers two things: (1) what data outlets give you vs. what they leave out, and (2) how they arrange and repeat information to create certain impressions or implications.  Once you see how we identified the slant, it’ll be easy for you to apply the same distinctions to other news. Get your flags ready, because media analysis is about to get real. (Flags in this analysis signify missing or inaccurate data.)

Start Assumption: The four articles part from the assumption that al-Baghdadi is a “bad guy” who must be eliminated. They suggest killing him would be a “big,” “major,” “powerful,” “severe” (you get the picture) “blow” to IS.

Flag! First case of missing information: None of the outlets explain why or how killing al-Baghdadi would be a “blow” to the group. Considering most media coverage on IS, how often do outlets clearly lay out the objective of the campaign against IS? They seldomly do.

Without this, how can readers know a single action like killing al-Baghdadi will have a “major” effect? If this were Jenga, this bit of missing data would undo the rest of the structure. And the only outlet that provided some balancing information on this was the Times, which wrote, “The extent to which Mr. Baghdadi exerted day-to-day control over the Islamic State’s activities is not fully clear,” but then essentially overwrote it in the same sentence with, “but his death would be a major blow, easily the most prominent since Osama bin Laden…”

Emphasis: All the articles accurately report on the Russian Defense Ministry’s statement, which said it’s investigating intel indicating that al-Baghdadi may have been killed. No flags here. But what is interesting is that they repeated that it hasn’t been verified: The Times and CNN repeated it twice, TASS repeated it three times, and AP repeated it five times.

Balancing information about false reporting: The four outlets mention there have been past reports of al-Baghdadi’s death that turned out to be false. This is good to include, because it opens the possibility that it could also be the case here. TASS, however, said the U.S. Army “repeatedly” reported al-Baghdadi’s death in the past.

Flag! Knife researchers found four such reports — three from Iraq’s Interior Ministry, one from IS’ own Amaq news agency — but found none from the U.S. military. If demonstrably false, TASS’ statement could give the impression that the U.S. military or its intel is unreliable. Be sure to read our Fact Comparison section for more details.

Balancing quote from Russian Foreign Ministry: AP and the Times quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying, “past examples of similar actions to strike the leadership of terrorist groups were presented with much enthusiasm and pomp, but the experience shows that those structures later regained their capability.” Considering the above points on the premise, this is important to consider, and it comes from someone of earned authority on the matter. This means flags for both CNN and TASS for not including this quote or similar information.

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

  • 32% Spun

  • 34% Spun

  • 46% Spun

  • 53% Spun

Balancing opinions: The three western outlets provide opinions that can help broaden readers’ perspectives on the story. TASS doesn’t include this information, so you know what that means (flag!). Here are some highlights:

  • AP writes that the most recent attacks in London and Tehran would have happened after al-Baghdadi’s alleged killing. This doesn’t necessarily indicate he wasn’t killed, but it’s good to consider that if he had been, it may not have had an immediate damaging effect on IS.
  • AP also questions why al-Baghdadi would have attended an area easily targeted by the coalition, if he’s “known to move around with great secrecy.” Similarly, CNN cited one of its correspondents saying the details Russia provided “were inconsistent with the typical behavior of [IS] leaders.” They have a point.
  • The Times suggests that Russia’s statement might have been “tactical and intended to assist” its forces in Syria, which is entirely possible. It then says, “A claim that the terrorist leader had been killed, regardless of the evidence, would sow doubt among Islamic State fighters.”

Flag! A last but illustrative flag. This is another example of how the outlets reinforce the premise we mentioned earlier. Would killing IS’ leader automatically “sow doubt” among fighters? Or could it have no effect, or even the opposite?

To recap, we looked for what information was missing (especially the kind that if it were there, it might change how you understand the story), how many balancing points were included (not many, as you can see), what the main implication was (that killing IS’ leader is a step in the right direction) and any faulty assumptions under that.

We can examine the underlying premise a little further: If we assume the objective of killing al-Baghdadi is to defeat IS, what’s the objective in defeating IS? It may sound like a no-brainer, but think about it; the outlets don’t say what the objective is. Is the objective to stop violence? If it is, killing IS’ leader doesn’t necessarily achieve this, not only in the “fighting fire with fire” sense, but also because it may potentially backfire altogether. This too is something the articles don’t point out.

Whether Russia’s statement proves to be true or false, hopefully this analysis provides a few ways to think about the information so you don’t conclude this is big news without questioning a few things first.



“The extremist group brought a reign of terror and intimidation into areas where they gained control.”

IS fought and gained control of territories

Associated Press

Russia is verifying information on whether it killed al-Baghdadi, “dealing a potentially severe blow to the extremist group as it fights to hang on to its stronghold in Syria and Iraq.”

Russia is verifying information on whether it killed al-Baghdadi.

The New York Times

“But the Obama administration said that the pattern of airstrikes showed that Russia’s real intention was to prop up the government of President Bashar al-Assad.”

Russia has led airstrikes in Syria.

The New York Times

“The group also displayed a sophisticated command of social media to recruit potential jihadists from around the world, and to sow terror in the West.”

IS used social media to communicate their messages.

Fact Comparison

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

Earlier, representatives of the United States’ Army had repeatedly reported about the death of the IS group’s leader, but later the report was either denied or al-Baghdadi released video messages with calls for his supporters. (TASS)

A search of the U.S. Department of Defense website, including press releases and articles, did not yield any results from Army or other military officials claiming al-Baghdadi had died. For example, a February 2017 press briefing hosted by Major General Rupert Jones, noted that an airstrike killed “more than a dozen ISIS leaders in western Iraq,” but he said he couldn’t “corroborate” whether al-Baghdadi was among the dead. Plus, the articles by CNN, BBC and The Mirror noted in the “misleading” point below include quotes from U.S. military officials saying they could not confirm his death. Based on the information available, the statement by TASS claiming the U.S. Army “repeatedly” reported al-Baghdadi’s death appears to be false.

In the past, Russian state news agencies have reported inaccurately on the deaths of Islamic separatists in the Chechen conflict. In 2011, for example, several Russian wire agencies citing anonymous sources reported that Doku Umarov, a leader of the Chechen insurgency, had been killed in an airstrike in the North Caucasus region, but there was never official confirmation. (The New York Times)

The New York Times uses this one example to imply Russia’s report on the alleged death of al-Baghdadi may be false. By calling out Russia, specifically, the article may negatively influence people’s opinions of Russia and its military intelligence, and encourage assumptions that it disseminates inaccurate information.

What the Times doesn’t say is that Russian news agencies aren’t the only ones to make errors while reporting the alleged deaths of Islamic State leaders. For example, in November 2014, after Iraq’s Ministry of Interior said the Iraqi air force wounded al-Baghdadi and killed a number of his senior leaders in an airstrike, media outlets such as CNN wrote stories speculating on al-Baghdadi’s death. In April 2015, reports circulated of al-Baghdadi’s death after an Iraqi interior ministry spokesman said al-Baghdadi was “seriously wounded’ in a “‘coalition’ airstrike.” Radio Iran confirmed the death at the time. In October that year, after al-Baghdadi’s convoy was hit by Iraqi forces, news reports, again, speculated as to his existence. However, his death was not confirmed. In June 2016, the Amaq news agency reported, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed by coalition air strikes on Raqqa on the fifth day of Ramadan,” according to the UK-based news outlet, The Mirror. In October 2016, Fox News reported that al-Baghdadi had been poisoned, citing unknown sources: “ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is at death’s door after being poisoned by a mystery assassin in Iraq, it has been reported.” According to The Washington Post, IS leader Abu Wahib has also been reported to have died on more than one occasion.


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

States: Russia did kill al-Baghdadi, along with “scores” of other leaders.

While AP writes that Russia “claims” this, it doesn’t specify that Russia’s Defense Ministry said the information is “being verified.” And other than al-Baghdadi, media outlets report three higher-ranking leaders, along with 30 middle ranking leaders may have also been killed. Do these numbers amount to an indefinitely large number (meaning, “scores”)?

Doesn’t say: Which IS leaders.

Other headlines say Russia is investigating whether al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, was among those killed. This lack of specificity could lead to generalizations about who was reportedly killed (most IS leaders? all leaders?), or in the least obscure why this event is particularly relevant in the international strategy against IS.

States: Russia is offering a report that conflicts with that of “observers.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry hasn’t technically  confirmed he was killed. The “observers” Newsweek references — an “Iraqi adviser on the jihadi movement and a Syrian monitoring group” — say he’s not dead, hypothesizing he wouldn’t have been in Raqqa during the airstrike. Saying the reports are “conflicting” may be comparing apples to oranges. Russia allegedly is working with intel it received; the “observers” seem to rely solely on hypothesis, as they don’t provide other data indicating he’s alive.


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

The media’s slant:
  • Killing IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would be good, and would help defeat IS.
  • Russia has falsely claimed to have killed IS leaders in the past, making it an unreliable source and this claim likely false. (The New York Times, CNN)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Al-Baghdadi has reportedly done or directed very destructive things, but killing him may not necessarily be key in defeating IS, and could potentially have the opposite effect. For instance, killing him could make him into a martyr or similar symbol, and attract more fighters to IS. In any case, killing IS’ leader wouldn’t solve the problem of this or other so-called “terrorist” groups. As noted in previous analyses, “fighting fire with fire” may simply lead to more violence.
  • Russia might have successfully killed al-Baghdadi and is earnestly trying to get confirmation, or it may not have, but isn’t intentionally spreading false information. Intelligence gathering in armed conflicts may be limited and errors can occur, as previous reports on al-Baghdadi show. If proved false, this report may simply be another such occurrence.