How to spot bias in the Russian Olympic ban coverage
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How to spot bias in the Russian Olympic ban coverage

December 7, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

IOC suspends Russia from Winter Games, may allow individual athletes to compete as neutrals

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) on Tuesday, after an investigation it commissioned confirmed Russia was involved in manipulating performance-enhancing drugs rules. In addition to the suspension, the IOC decided the ROC must reimburse the costs of the investigation and pay $15 million USD “to build the capacity and integrity of the global anti-doping system,” according to the IOC statement.

The IOC said some Russian athletes with “clean” records on “doping” may be invited to compete in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang as neutral athletes wearing the Olympic flag. If Russian athletes win medals, the Olympic anthem would be played during their ceremonies. These invitations will be determined by a panel led by Valerie Fourneyron, the chair of the Independent Testing Authority (ITA), an independent testing body.

The 17-month-long investigation was led by Samuel Schmid, a former president of Switzerland. It was investigating an allegation that Russia’s federally-controlled Ministry of Sports was involved in instructing athletes to “dope” and leading a scheme to cover up the positive test results, specifically for the Sochi 2014 games.

The investigation’s final 30-page report confirms “the systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia, through the Disappearing Positive Methodology and during the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, as well as the various levels of administrative, legal and contractual responsibility, resulting from the failure to respect the respective obligations of the various entities involved.” Disappearing Positive Methodology refers to reporting positive tests as negative, in order to avoid retesting. The report did not find any direct support from the Kremlin.

Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov said Russia would explore legal options on how to proceed. Mikhail Degtyarev, the head of the Russian parliament’s culture and sports committee, said athletes who are invited should decide individually on whether to participate in the PyeongChang games.

Distortion Highlights

  • Even when news coverage is relatively fact-based, bias can still sneak in. This was the case with the coverage of the Olympic ban of Russia.
  • Not surprisingly, the Russian media had a different bias than the U.S. media.
  • We look at some of the subtle ways the outlets create these slants.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Juggernaut

    That was the punishment issued Tuesday to the proud sports juggernaut that has long used the Olympics as a show of global force but was exposed for systematic doping in previously unfathomable ways. (The New York Times)

  • Narrative

    The narrative of state doping – which the Kremlin has described as “slander by a turncoat” – is based on testimony by the former head of the Moscow anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov. (RT)

  • Scathing

    That appeal was rejected in light of the conclusions of Samuel Schmid, a former president of Switzerland whom the Olympic committee appointed last year to review the findings of a scathing investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. (The New York Times)

  • Rigorous

    Those with histories of rigorous drug testing may petition for permission to compete in neutral uniforms. (The New York Times)

  • Powerhouses

    By suspending the Russian National Olympic Committee, the IOC is punishing one of its most prominent medal-winning powerhouses and stepping headfirst into political tensions between Russia and the West. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Strike out

    The vice speaker of the Russian parliament, Igor Lebedev, reportedly said Russian athletes invited to the Games should strike out against the IOC through a boycott of the Olympics altogether. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Defiant

    President Vladimir V. Putin seemed to predict a boycott of the Pyeongchang Games with a defiant dismissal of the doping scandal and a foreign policy in recent years that has centered on the premise that he has rescued Russia from the humiliation inflicted on it by the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (The New York Times)

  • Geopolitical rivalry

    Described as “an instrument” in a geopolitical rivalry between Moscow and the West by Russia’s vice premier and former sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, Rodchenkov is currently in hiding in the United States, reportedly enrolled in a witness protection program. (RT)

  • Undermined

    Russia’s preparations for the 2018 Winter Olympics have already been undermined by numerous disqualifications. (RT)

  • Severe

    Some Russian officials had threatened to boycott if the I.O.C. delivered such a severe punishment. (The New York Times)

It’s not surprising that U.S. media covered the IOC decision to ban Russia differently than Russian media did. The U.S. outlets we examined suggest the decision will damage Russia’s athletic and political influence on the world stage, while the Russian outlets had a different take. One implied Russia was the victim of a plot, while the other downplayed the government’s alleged culpability.

What might be most interesting is how the outlets achieve their bias. Their articles stick to the facts more than most stories we analyze, and their headlines are all fact-based. For this reason, they earned higher ratings than most articles (ranging from 61 to 79 percent Total Integrity).

Yet, while the articles all use the same set of facts (mainly, the details of the IOC ruling), they each have different slants. If you’re not looking too hard, you might not notice the subtle ways they do this, so let’s explore.

US outlets

The U.S. outlets we looked at, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, dramatize the ruling against Russia. They suggest the ruling is significant because Russia’s absence will damage the country’s influence. This is an opinion and it deviates from neutral fact-based reporting.

Sensational descriptions: The U.S. publications promote this bias through sensational descriptions. For instance:

“The IOC is punishing one of its most prominent medal-winning powerhouses and stepping headfirst into political tensions between Russia and the West.” (The Wall Street Journal)

“That was the punishment issued Tuesday to the proud sports juggernaut that has long used the Olympics as a show of global force but was exposed for systematic doping in previously unfathomable ways.” (The New York Times)

These sentences are different than a data-based version of the news:

The IOC is suspending Russia from the games over a Russian governmental body’s alleged role in systemic “doping.” At the Sochi 2014 games, Russia won nine gold medals, five silver medals and eight bronze medals, according to the official results.

When you take the sensationalism out of the Times and Journal articles, you’re left with much less bias.

Russian outlets

The state-owned and state-funded Russian publications we analyzed, TASS and RT, respectively, have a different take — either downplaying alleged Russian government involvement or making the IOC decision look unjust.

Missing data: At first glance, the TASS article might seem like our Raw Data. The article isn’t sensational and doesn’t include any opinions or conclusions about the situation. Yet, it glosses over the allegations against a Russian governmental agency, instead focusing on individual athletes. TASS’ only mention of possible government involvement is a single reference to “alleged involvement of state officials,” and it’s in the last sentence of the article. The outlet downplays the allegations against the Russian government by simply excluding this information. As a result, the decision doesn’t seem to reflect as badly on Russia.

Highlighting certain opinions: RT focuses on opinions that suggest the IOC ruling is the result of a plot against Russia. The outlet sticks to the data of the ruling until the second half of its article. Then it stresses that Russia “categorically” denies instructing its athletes to break rules, and cites opinions that paint Russia as the victim.

The outlet quotes the Kremlin calling the accusation “slander by a turncoat,” then refers to a video by a suspected World Anti-Doping Agency informant. In the video, the person says he doesn’t care about fighting doping, that he’ll “make sure” there’s at least “one positive sample of 20,000,” and that he “will destroy all Olympic sports of Russia for the next five years!” (These quotes aren’t cited in the U.S. publications.) Put this together and what do you get? The IOC ruling against Russia seems unjust.

What can we learn from this story? Often we can tell when a story feels biased, but if we can figure out exactly what causes this, it helps us separate the bias from the facts. Next time you read the news or hear a story, ask yourself: What data is included? What opinion and spin is included? And, what information is left out?

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

  • 8% Spun

  • 27% Spun

  • 32% Spun

  • 39% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The Wall Street Journal

“By suspending the Russian National Olympic Committee, the IOC is punishing one of its most prominent medal-winning powerhouses and stepping headfirst into political tensions between Russia and the West.”

The IOC suspended Russia. At the Sochi 2014 games, Russia won nine gold medals, five silver medals and eight bronze medals, according to the official results.

The New York Times

“Olympic officials made two seemingly significant concessions to Russia.”

The IOC statement says neutral athletes from Russia will be named “Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)” and the “suspension of the ROC from the commencement of the Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018” may be partially or fully lifted.

The New York Times

The “proud sports juggernaut … has long used the Olympics as a show of global force.”

Russia has previously competed in the Olympics.

Fact Comparison

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

The International Olympic Committee has suspended Russia from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics for its alleged state-sponsored doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, RT)


TASS did not mention that the IOC accused Russia of “state-sponsored doping.” TASS mentions that one of the IOC’s investigations included “the alleged involvement of state officials,” which doesn’t give a full sense of the scope of the allegation. It also placed this detail in the last line of its article, which may downplay it.

The “state-sponsored” aspect of the commission’s findings refers to Russia’s federally-controlled Ministry of Sports, which oversees Russia’s participation in the Olympics. It does not refer to the Kremlin. According to its report, the IOC did not find any “independent and impartial evidence confirming the support or the knowledge of [the state doping support system] by the highest state authority.”

The Russian Olympic Committee was fined $15 million on Tuesday. (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, RT)


TASS did not mention the monetary fine the IOC imposed on Russia for its alleged “state-sponsored doping.” Leaving out such details may give people an incomplete picture of the penalty imposed on Russia and its potential financial impact on the Russian Olympic Committee.

Headlines

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

The Russian ban may hurt the games, but the headline doesn’t say how.

It’s not necessarily for “nothing,” but it will be different. Some Russian athletes have an opportunity to compete in the Olympics, but not under Russia’s flag.

Russians may feel “enraged,” but this doesn’t say what they actually did or said, if anything.

The Numbers

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

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