The Russia sanctions: Bias here, there and everywhere
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The Russia sanctions: Bias here, there and everywhere

July 28, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Russia restricts US diplomatic staff and facility access in response to US Senate sanctions bill

On Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement announcing that, in response to sanctions approved by the U.S. Senate on Thursday, Russia would place restrictions on American facilities and diplomatic staff in Russia.

In its statement, the ministry said the sanctions on Russia proposed by the U.S. Senate “violat[e] the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and generally accepted diplomatic practice.” The ministry also denied U.S. claims of alleged Russian interference in U.S. “domestic affairs.”

The ministry announced that starting Aug. 1, the U.S. Embassy’s use of a country house and storage facilities in Russia would be suspended. The ministry also said it asked the embassy and consulates to reduce their number of employees to 455 by Sept. 1 “in strict correspondence with the number of Russian diplomats and technical staff currently working” in the U.S. The ministry refers to U.S. sanctions enacted by the Obama administration in 2016, which reduced Russia’s diplomatic presence in the U.S. by 35 employees, to 455.

The U.S. has consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg, and an embassy in Moscow. According to The Wall Street Journal, Russian parliamentary vice-speaker Sergei Zheleznyak estimated that about 700 U.S. employees will be expelled from Russia.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry concluded its statement with, “On the basis of reciprocity, we reserve the right to additional measures, which could affect US interests.”

Background

On Dec. 29, 2016, President Obama authorized “actions in response to the Russian Government’s aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election in 2016.” Under the measure, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two Russian compounds on U.S. soil, adding that the president will need agreement from Congress to reduce sanctions.

This week, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed legislation to strengthen sanctions against Russia. On July 22, House leaders announced they had agreed on the draft of a bill that would impose sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea. Under the bill, additional sanctions against Russia would be allowed. The bill is a response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, ongoing Russian military actions in eastern Ukraine, and alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

The House approved the measure on Tuesday, voting 419 to 3. On Thursday, the Senate voted 98 to 2 in favor of the bill. The legislation must be signed by Trump to go into effect.

Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign team is under investigation for alleged coordination with Russian officials during the campaign. Putin has denied Russian government involvement in the hacking of U.S. Democratic Party emails last year.

Distortion Highlights

  • Of all the ways media can distort the facts, slant is often the most invisible.
  • All the articles we analyzed contained slant, favoring one country’s point of view and implying the other was at fault.
  • To bring more balance to the news, reporting would ideally prioritize data that shows how all parties participate.

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

Read between the lines. Learn how news outlets distort the information.

Top Spin Words

  • Aggressive

    Aggressive rhetoric due to “exceptionalism” (TASS)

    The US actions once again attest to Washington’s extremely aggressive policy in international affairs, which, “under the guise of its ‘exceptionalism,’ “arrogantly ignores other countries’ stances and interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. (TASS)

    The legislation is aimed at punishing Moscow for its alleged role in meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and for the Kremlin’s military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, where the Putin’s intervention has helped prop up the beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad. (Fox News)

    “This yet again attests to the extreme aggressiveness of the United States when it comes to international affairs,” the statement said. (The New York Times)

  • Tit-for-Tat

    The Kremlin said it would cut the U.S. diplomatic corps even further if the U.S. decided to expel more Russian diplomats to continue the tit-for-tat. (Fox News)

    “In the event of new unilateral steps by the US authorities to reduce the number of our diplomats in the US, a tit-for-tat response will follow,” the ministry’s statement said. (TASS)

    The measure looks to be a tit for tat move in response to U.S. authorities’ decision last year to deny Russian diplomats access to two Moscow-owned compounds … (Wall Street Journal)

  • Escalate tensions

    The measures escalate tensions after ties fell to Cold War lows following the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and allegations last year that Russia had used cyber attacks … (Wall Street Journal)

  • Threatening

    The moves, which Russia had been threatening for weeks, came a day after the United States Senate approved a measure to expand economic sanctions against Russia, as well as against Iran and North Korea. (The New York Times)

  • Largely evaporated

    Moscow did not respond at that time, with President Vladimir V. Putin signaling that he was hoping for better relations under the future President Trump. Those hopes have largely evaporated. (The New York Times)

  • Expressing annoyance

    On Thursday, while expressing annoyance, Mr. Putin said at a news conference in Finland that he would wait to see the final law on the new American sanctions before deciding on a response.

  • Despite invectives

    Despite Washington’s invectives, Moscow “has acted responsibly showing restraint and has not responded to obvious provocations,” the ministry noted. (TASS)

  • Cold War lows

    The measures escalate tensions after ties fell to Cold War lows following the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and allegations last year that Russia had used cyber attacks … (Wall Street Journal)

Most Knife analyses illustrate the difference between what actually happened (the Raw Data) and how the media reports on it (the Raw Data plus Distortion). The coverage of Russia’s response to the Senate’s sanctions bill is a little different, because it’s based on a Russia Foreign Ministry statement with its own share of distortion and, in particular, biased spin (noted below in red).

From describing U.S. foreign policy as “extremely hostile” and “Russophobia,” and the proposed sanctions as “anti-Russia,” “blackmail” and “an obvious indication that relations with Russia are “in thrall to the political infighting” in Washington, the statement’s bias is somewhat straightforward: Russia is innocent, and the U.S. is wrong to seek new sanctions against it.

TASS, the Russian state-run news agency and one of the four sources we analyzed, follows the same bias, with a few additions of its own, such as, “The US has been persistently pushing ahead with its anti-Russian crusade under the far-fetched pretext of Russia’s alleged meddling in its internal affairs.”

Next to TASS, the three U.S. sources may seem objective, but upon closer examination we found that they’re also biased—just in a different way. They mostly cited the ministry’s statement, as well as statements from Russian officials, and they provided contextual information about the bill. However, each of the articles’ lead sentences have something else in common:

  • Fox News: “Russian President Vladimir Putin finally took his revenge on Friday …”
  • The New York Times: “Russia took its first steps on Friday to retaliate against proposed American sanctions …”
  • The Wall Street Journal: “Russia struck out at the U.S. on Friday …”

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

  • 64% Spun

  • 65% Spun

  • 71% Spun

  • 73% Spun

The spin here implies that Russia is the one acting aggressively against the U.S. These articles downplay the principle of diplomatic reciprocity, which the Russian ministry cites as the reason for its actions, and present Russia’s response as an attack, or revenge, on the U.S.

All of the articles we analyzed (TASS, Fox News, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal) feature primarily one side of the story, implying that the other country is the main problem. Although they support different sides, they are all biased in that they don’t present a balanced participation of all sides of the conflict. This accounts for the low slant ratings that they all received in our ratings.

Slant is often invisible to readers, meaning, it is hard to notice the sides of the story that aren’t on the page. It’s particularly important, though, that readers are aware this type of biased reporting, as it can further a mentality of blame and polarization, and can help escalate conflict.  

To bring more balance to the news, reporting could prioritize data that shows how all parties participate. Sanctions and retaliation are common in international policy, and do not necessarily mean relations are headed towards conflict. Ideally media could report on policy changes in a data-based manner, minimizing the drama and appeal to emotions that media currently overuses.

Fiction
or
Fact

Tass

The US actions once again attest to Washington’s extremely aggressive policy in international affairs, which, “under the guise of its ‘exceptionalism,’ “arrogantly ignores other countries’ stances and interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

The U.S. imposed sanctions in 2016. The House and Senate have passed a bill draft proposing new sanctions this year.

The Wall Street Journal

“The measures escalate tensions after ties fell to Cold War lows following the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and allegations last year that Russia had used cyber attacks to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.”

Both countries have taken measures: the U.S. imposed sanctions in 2016 and may add more, and Russia responded by limiting American diplomatic staff and access.

Fact Comparison

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

Russia on Friday seized two American diplomatic properties and ordered the United States Embassy to reduce staff by September. (The New York Times)


The Times’ lead sentence states that Russia has taken possession of the properties, yet Russia’s Foreign Ministry stated the use of properties will be “suspended” after Aug. 1. The Times doesn’t mention that detail until about two-thirds down its article. Readers may not realize that the “seizure” is actually a suspension, which may portray what’s essentially a revoked privilege as an act of force.

The U.S. actions once again attest to Washington’s extremely aggressive policy in international affairs, which, “under the guise of its ‘exceptionalism,’ “arrogantly ignores other countries’ stances and interests.” (TASS)


Although TASS quotes Russia’s Foreign Ministry statement, the official English-language version of the statement on the Ministry’s website isn’t the same as what TASS published, which could cause confusion and misrepresent Russia’s response. For example, the above statement refers to U.S. “exceptionalism” but the ministry calls it “exclusiveness.”

Below are more examples of what appear to be different translations of the same text from the ministry’s statement. Note the differences and see how the translation may distort or exaggerate Russia’s response.

TASS: “The passage of a new sanctions bill clearly showed that relations with Russia “have become hostage to internal political strife in the US.”

Ministry statement: “The adoption of the new sanctions bill is an obvious indication that relations with Russia are in thrall to the political infighting in the United States.”

TASS: “In the event of new unilateral steps by the US authorities to reduce the number of our diplomats in the US, a tit-for-tat response will follow.”

Ministry statement: “In the event of further unilateral action on behalf of US officials to reduce the Russian diplomatic staff in the US, we will respond accordingly.”

Congress’ package of financial sanctions also affected Iran and North Korea. (The New York Times, Fox News)


The Wall Street Journal and TASS don’t mention Iran and North Korea are also affected by the Senate bill. The fact that Iran and North Korea are included may help to clarify that the bill isn’t just about Russia — the Senate has other issues it’s addressing.

Headlines

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

Suggests Trump has no choice but to sign the bill.

Trump has the option to pass the bill or veto it, as he does with other measures. BBC’s description could imply he must do the Senate’s bidding, or something he doesn’t want to do.

States the sanctions are being enforced “over election hacking.”

Presenting only one perspective downplays others. Although vague, the Russian ministry gives other reasons for its latest announcement. Singling out Russia’s alleged interference in the election might inappropriately weigh the issues at hand.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • U.S. outlets suggest Russia responded aggressively to the U.S. sanctions and expulsion of diplomats, in tit-for-tat fashion. Russia is overreacting, or acting inappropriately. TASS, on the other hand, suggests the U.S. is to blame for the disagreement and is in fact acting unlawfully against Russia, which is free from fault.
  • The situation is dramatic, indicating that bilateral relations are getting worse or are even at “Cold War lows.”
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • There are two sides to this dispute: Russia’s response isn’t necessarily an overreaction, and the U.S.’ actions aren’t necessarily more appropriate. Both countries participated and are responsible for their bilateral relations, including any disagreements that they have.
  • Both countries’ actions are part of diplomatic reciprocity and might not be a big, dramatic event. For instance, the U.S. has 26 current sets of sanctions in place, according to the Treasury Department.