Slant 101: North Korea’s plan to fire missiles near Guam
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Slant 101: North Korea’s plan to fire missiles near Guam

August 11, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

North Korea announces draft plan to fire missiles near Guam

On Thursday, state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported details of a North Korean plan to fire missiles into waters near Guam.

If the provisional plan is carried out, North Korea would launch four locally produced Hwasong-12 missiles, which would travel 2,086 miles in 17 minutes and 45 seconds, according to the report. The missiles would fly over Japan and into waters 19 to 25 miles off the coast of Guam, a U.S. Pacific territory that houses two U.S. military bases. The report said the Korean People’s Army Strategic Force (KPASF) would present the final plan to leader Kim Jong Un by mid-August, after which the KPASF would “wait for his order.”

A U.S. intelligence report says North Korea has developed a nuclear warhead small enough to fit inside a ballistic missile, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday. U.S. President Donald Trump responded to the report saying North Korea “will be met with fire, fury and frankly power – the likes of which this world has never seen before.” On Thursday, KPASF commander General Kim Rak-gyom said “sound dialog” with Trump “is not possible … and only absolute force can work on him.”

After North Korea released details of the draft missile plan, Trump commented on his Tuesday remarks, saying, “Frankly the people that were questioning that statement, was it too tough, maybe it wasn’t tough enough.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters, “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.” In a press briefing, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Roh Jae-cheon said, “Currently, there is no unusual movement related to a direct provocation.”

UN Sanctions on North Korea

Last month, North Korea test fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles (read about the first one here). On Saturday, in response to the missile testing, the U.N. Security Council approved additional sanctions against North Korea. The sanctions are estimated to result in an estimated $1 billion loss in revenue for North Korea, reducing its annual export revenue by about one-third.

Distortion Highlights

  • “Slant” is a term that’s thrown around a lot, but not always easily identified or understood.
  • Using the North Korea story, we break down two ways to better identify slant in media coverage.
  • This distinction can help readers distinguish between reporting that informs, versus news that inspires fear.

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

  • ESCALATION

    The sudden escalation in tensions in the past week came after US intelligence analysts assessed that North Korea had produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead, according to multiple sources familiar with the analysis of North Korea’s missile and nuclear program. (CNN)

    Meredith Sumpter, Asia director of the Eurasia Group and a long-time Asia analyst, says that despite the escalation in tensions, “we are no closer to actual military confrontation now then we were before.” (CNN)

    Washington has been testing its missile defenses in response to the North’s stepped-up development and the current escalation of tensions could lead to pressure for the U.S. military to try to shoot down the North’s missiles in midflight if they are heading toward Guam. (AP)

    Amid escalating rhetoric, Mr Mattis issued a strongly worded statement on Wednesday calling on Pyongyang to halt its arms programme. (BBC)

    Such a launch would almost compel the United States to attempt an intercept and possibly generate further escalation. (AP)

  • BELLICOSE

    North Korea, no stranger to bluffing, frequently uses extremely bellicose rhetoric with warnings of military action to keep its adversaries on their heels. (AP)

  • PROVOCATION

    The plan is the latest provocation in a back-and-forth with Washington, which came to a boil on Tuesday when US President Donald Trump appeared to threaten nuclear war on the pariah state. (CNN)

    South Korea’s military says it has not seen any unusual action in the North that might indicate a provocation. (BBC)

  • MUCH MORE COMPLICATED

    If North Korea were to actually carry it out — even if it aimed at hitting the waters off Guam and not the island itself — that would clearly pose a potential threat to U.S. territory and put the United States in a much more complicated situation than it has been during previous missile launches. (AP)

  • INTENSIFIES

    A North Korean plan to fire four missiles near the US Pacific territory of Guam will be ready for Kim Jong Un’s consideration in days, state media has reported, as an unprecedented exchange of military threats between Washington and Pyongyang intensifies. (CNN)

  • SLAMMED

    Trump’s comments have been slammed as incendiary by his political opposition as well as some foreign powers, but have been supported by others. (CNN)

    North Korea has also slammed US and UN sanctions placed on the country over its recent increase in missile testing, and has used those measures to justify its renewed aggressiveness. (CNN)

  • FIERY

    The White House was accused of sending mixed messages on its North Korea stance, with Trump’s fiery comments juxtaposed with US State Secretary Rex Tillerson’s more diplomatic approach, which focused on dialogue. (CNN)

  • DEVASTATE

    … conventional weapons that could devastate South Korea’s capital of Seoul. (AP)

The four sources we analyzed today on North Korea’s reported plan to fire missiles near Guam were biased towards the view that “tensions” are “escalating,” that this is a dangerous situation and that military action against North Korea may be the only viable option.

There is some validity to this perspective; the North Korea situation is a serious matter, and the stakes are high. But there are other perspectives: North Korea firing at Guam is still hypothetical, no one has declared war, and there may be other options to resolve the situation, such as diplomacy. The media didn’t give those views much weight, and that lack of balance heightens the fear and drama around the situation.

To better understand this, let’s look at the most and least slanted articles of those we analyzed today. With these distinctions, you’ll be able to more easily identify slant in other news reporting, as well as understand how The Knife’s ratings work.

The Associated Press: 78% slanted (most biased)

  • Information: AP’s article was the most slanted, in part because it only included three balancing statements (that is, information that provides an alternate perspective to the main slant). This means all of the remaining 31 statements supported the notion that the situation with North Korea is likely to worsen. This points to a disproportion of information (31 statements to three).
  • Placement: Guess where AP placed those three balancing statements? At the bottom, with two in the very last paragraph: “‘Americans should sleep well at night,’ Tillerson told reporters. ‘Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.’” This could change how people perceive the threat, but by the time readers get to it in the article, the biased information has already built a 31-sentence momentum.

BBC: 57% slanted (least biased)

  • Information: This article contained a total of 34 sentences that support the main slant, but also included eight balancing and six neutral statements (by “neutral,” we mean unbiased, verifiable data). If you consider slant as a type of scale, those 14 statements serve as a type of counterbalance to the 34, although in different capacities. That is, neutral statements don’t support the bias, but they don’t balance it either, and this, too, is reflected in our ratings.
  • Placement: BBC introduced the balancing statements higher up in the article (starting in the seventh sentence), which helps counter the type of momentum an article like AP’s can create in readers’ impressions.

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

  • 39% Spun

  • 53% Spun

  • 61% Spun

  • 63% Spun

Reporters may not get all the information they want from their sources. However, they have full authorship as to what information they decide to include or omit in their reports, and the order in which they present it. Both these elements can determine how biased or balanced an article is.

How can you apply these distinctions to identify bias in anything you read? It’s simple: One, ask yourself, “What am I being told and what am I not being told?” A way to check this is by asking, “If I were told (insert missing information), would it change my understanding?” And two, “What’s the order in which the information is being presented?” Or, “If I change the order, does it change my impression of the information?”

You might be wondering how much bias really makes a difference, especially when the news deals with a potential armed conflict (and possibly a nuclear armed conflict) between nations, as reported today. But when the media dramatizes or sensationalizes the news, it can play on people’s fears. Cautious people tend to make more strategic decisions. We’re not so sure frightened people do. The media can help tip this balance with its readership.

Fiction
or
Fact

Associated Press

“North Korea, no stranger to bluffing, frequently uses extremely bellicose rhetoric with warnings of military action to keep its adversaries on their heels.”

North Korea said it might fire missiles into waters off the coast of Guam. It has said many times previously that it would take military action.

Associated Press

“If North Korea were to actually carry it out — even if it aimed at hitting the waters off Guam and not the island itself — that would clearly pose a potential threat to U.S. territory and put the United States in a much more complicated situation than it has been during previous missile launches.”

North Korea missiles may strike off the coast of Guam. North Korea has previously test-fired missiles.

Fact Comparison

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

Mr. Trump said that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen before” if it continued to expand its nuclear and missile programs. (The New York Times)


The Times’ paraphrase at the end of Trump’s statement may suggest that his threat is in response to North Korea’s “nuclear and missile program” expansion, but that’s not what he said during his comments. He directed his comments at the North’s “threats.” What Trump considers to be a threat may be open to interpretation, but stating an assumption as his words may be misleading.

Here is Trump’s full comment: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire, fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal statement and like I said, they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Some of the North Korean missiles launched in recent months have fallen in waters near Japan, but none of them have actually flown over the country. (The New York Times)


While this is true, focusing on the last few months doesn’t tell the whole story of North Korean missiles flying over Japan. As our missile timeline shows, North Korea has launched missiles over Japan before. For example, on August 31, 1998, North Korea conducted the first flight test of its two-stage Taepodong-1 missile. It flew from North Korea’s east coast, over the Island of Honshu and landed in the Pacific Ocean 330 km east of the Japanese port city of Hachinohe. Having this timeline may help readers put North Korea’s recent missile tests into context.

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 missile launch.

How many missiles are in a missile “salvo?” Would you guess four, the planned number? Some people may imagine more than this, given that “salvo” means “a rack of bombs or rockets” that is released all at once.

May inspire fear about whether North Korea will hit Guam with a missile.

Rather than simply raising the possibility of Guam being hit by a missile, The Daily Mail could provide facts to substantiate the chances of this happening. To the contrary, the outlet cites a Korea Defense and Security Forum researcher, who estimates that based on the plans, the missiles would not hit the island. So why imply that Guam might be hit?

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • Tensions are escalating between the U.S. and North Korea.
  • Trump’s rhetoric is making the situation worse.
  • This is a dangerous situation where military action may be necessary or the only available option.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • No official changes in U.S.-North Korea relations have been reported and the situation with North Korea may not have changed significantly. Associated Press and BBC quote or paraphrase Rex Tillerson saying, “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.” However, this quote does not come until the end of these articles.
  • It may be true that North Korea is responding to Trump’s comments, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be launching missiles, or planning to launch missiles had Trump not said what he did. As this timeline shows, North Korea has been launching missiles and testing nuclear weapons before he became president.
  • North Korea firing missiles near Guam is still hypothetical. This doesn’t mean the plan doesn’t represent a potentially dangerous situation or that military action isn’t a possible outcome, but there may be other options. For example, only BBC includes that the foreign ministry in South Korea has requested North Korea to respond to its recent offer of dialogue.