How subtle spin can make US-Cuban relations seem more dramatic
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How subtle spin can make US-Cuban relations seem more dramatic

October 4, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US orders 15 Cuban diplomats to leave Washington embassy within a week

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington, ordering them to leave within seven days. U.S. State Department officials said it was a reciprocal measure that ensures “equitable staffing levels” at each country’s embassy after the U.S. withdrew embassy staff from Cuba last week.

Last Friday, the U.S. reduced its embassy personnel in Cuba by “more than half” in response to unexplained health issues affecting U.S. diplomats and their families in Havana. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday that decision was made “to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.” The U.S. reduced embassy staff to 27 emergency personnel, according to The New York Times.

The State Department confirmed 22 U.S. diplomats and their family members stationed in Havana have experienced unexplained health issues. On August 9, the department announced that the health issues starting occurring late last year. Symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness, hearing loss, and visual and cognitive issues. The cause is unknown. Some possible causes include sonic weapons, toxins or viruses, according to The New York Times.

Cuba has denied involvement in the health incidents and allowed the F.B.I. into the country to investigate earlier this summer. According to U.S. officials, investigators reviewed security footage and did not find devices in diplomats’ lodging, and the F.B.I. is continuing its investigation.

In a statement last week, the U.S. issued a travel warning, saying that since the source of the health issues was unidentified. “We believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba,” the statement said.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. is maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba and will “continue to cooperate” with Cuba in investigating the health issues. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said the U.S. has not cooperated sufficiently with Cuba’s investigation into the incidents, Reuters reported.

Distortion Highlights

  • There are multiple ways news coverage can distort the news – some overt and some subtle.
  • The subtler distortions are harder to spot, and they can go unnoticed. But you can take notice!
  • Keep reading to see how little words like only, just and but can dramatize the news of the U.S.’ expulsion of Cuban diplomats.

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

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

Top Spin Words

  • Rapidly Unraveling

    The reductions are just the latest step in the rapidly unraveling US-Cuban relations that were restored in 2015 by former President Barack Obama. (CNN)

  • One-two punch

    Delivering a one-two punch to U.S.-Cuba relations, the U.S. last week also delivered an ominous warning to Americans to stay away from Cuba, a move that could have profound implications for the island’s travel industry. (AP)

  • Damaging

    It would be especially damaging, they argued, if — as some current and former officials suspect — the Cuban government is not even behind the attacks and the chill were to continue indefinitely. (The New York Times)

  • Rattled

    There was information that the Cubans were rattled by what had happened and were desperate to find the cause. (The New York Times)

  • Blow

    The steps taken by President Donald Trump’s administration mark another blow to his predecessor Barack Obama’s policy of rapprochement between Washington and Havana, former Cold War foes. (Reuters)

  • Sharp Escalation

    The dual moves marked a sharp escalation in the U.S. response to attacks that began nearly a year ago and yet remain unexplained despite harming at least 22 Americans — including a new victim identified this week. (AP)

  • Mystery

    The fact that Canadian diplomats were also affected deepened the mystery. (The New York Times)

    With U.S.-Cuba tensions escalating, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the latest decision was made due to Cuba’s “failure to take appropriate steps” to protect American personnel in Cuba who have been targeted in mysterious “attacks” that have damaged their health. (Reuters)

    The Trump administration expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the embassy in Washington in an escalating response to mysterious illnesses afflicting American embassy personnel in Havana. (The New York Times)

    The US on Tuesday expelled 15 Cuban diplomats to match staff reductions at the US Embassy in Havana after the US ordered home non-essential diplomats and families following mysterious attacks on personnel there, two US officials told CNN. (CNN)

  • Longtime Foes

    Only days ago, the U.S. and Cuba maintained dozens of diplomats in newly re-opened embassies in Havana and Washington, powerful symbols of a warming relationship between longtime foes.  (AP)

  • Delicate

    Now both countries are poised to cut their embassies by more than half, as invisible, unexplained attacks threaten delicate ties between the Cold War rivals. (AP)

  • Angry

    The Trump administration on Tuesday ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats after pulling more than half of its own embassy staff out of Havana last week, drawing an angry protest from the Cuban government. (CNN)

  • Skeletal

    The Trump administration decided last week to pare its staff in Havana down to a skeletal group of just 27 people who can carry out emergency services. (The New York Times)

U.S.-Cuban relations are “rapidly unraveling” and “tensions” are “escalating” in a dramatic series of events culminating in the U.S.’ decision to expel 15 Cuban diplomats. Or at least that’s the impression you might get from reading some of the coverage of the U.S.’ announcement.

The articles we analyzed contain some sweeping claims and overtly dramatic language that give this impression (such as those in our Top Spin section to the right and Fiction or Fact section below). So if you’re looking closely for where the news isn’t objective or is adding opinion, you can probably spot these easily. Yet, media also uses smaller words like “only,” “but” and “just,” which reinforce the dramatic message more subtly, and thus may be harder to spot. 

How does it work? Consider the following three examples, first looking at a neutral version, then the news outlet’s version (emphasis added with italics). See how the word choice affects how you take in the information.

1. The Knife versionFive days ago, the U.S. and Cuba maintained dozens of diplomats in embassies that had reopened in 2015 in Havana and Washington…

Compare to AP’s version: “Only days ago, the U.S. and Cuba maintained dozens of diplomats in newly re-opened embassies in Havana and Washington…”

  • The “only” adds stress by emphasizing that the situation is changing rapidly, which could portray the situation as urgent and dramatic.

2. The Knife version: The Trump administration decided last week to reduce its staff in Havana down to a group of 27 people who can carry out emergency services.

Compare to The New York Times’ version: “The Trump administration decided last week to pare its staff in Havana down to a skeletal group of just 27 people who can carry out emergency services.”

  • In addition to “pare” and “skeletal” not being neutral, the “just” also emphasizes the reduction in staff and makes the number seem small. Hypothetically, imagine it said: a group of a full 27 people who can carry out emergency services.

3. The Knife version: State Department officials said the expulsions were reciprocal measures intended to ensure that the U.S. and Cuban embassies would have “equitable staffing levels” while investigations continue into the unexplained “health attacks.”

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez called it an “unjustified decision”…

Compare to Reuters’ version: State Department officials said the expulsions were reciprocal measures – not punishment – intended to ensure that the U.S. and Cuban embassies would have “equitable staffing levels” while investigations continue into the unexplained “health attacks.”

But Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez denounced it as an “unjustified decision”…

  • In this example, the “but” connects the two sentences and implies that the second negates or undermines the first. The construction could suggest the Cuban minister did not believe the U.S.’ statement and is actively contesting it, though his quote doesn’t actually say this.   

Neither overt opinions nor the subtle spin words are a problem in themselves. In an analysis or editorial piece, they can emphasize the author’s point. The issue is when they are in articles labeled news – which ideally would stick to objectively reporting the facts of what happened.

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

  • 31% Spun

  • 49% Spun

  • 63% Spun

  • 67% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

Associated Press

“Delivering a one-two punch to U.S.-Cuba relations, the U.S. last week also delivered an ominous warning to Americans to stay away from Cuba…”

The U.S. said since the source of health issues is unidentified, citizens might also be at risk and it “warn[s] them not to travel to Cuba.”

Reuters

“The Trump administration on Tuesday ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats after pulling more than half of its own embassy staff out of Havana last week, drawing an angry protest from the Cuban government.”

The Trump administration ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats after withdrawing more than half its embassy staff out of Havana last week. The Cuban Foreign Minister called the action an “unjustified decision.”

Fact Comparison

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

In March, the U.S. asked two Cuban diplomats to leave the U.S. as a reciprocal measure after two U.S. diplomats injured in the attacks were unable to return to their posting. (CNN)


It’s true that the two Cuban diplomats were asked to leave, but it was actually on May 23, not in March. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert confirmed their departure in August.

From Nauert’s August briefing: “We can tell you that on May 23rd, the State Department took further action. We asked two officials who were accredited at the Embassy of Cuba in the United States to depart the United States. Those two individuals have departed the United States.”

Last week, the U.S. announced it was withdrawing 60 percent of its own diplomats from Havana. (AP, CNN)


The U.S. didn’t actually provide a specific percentage or number of diplomats it withdrew from Havana. However, during the Sept. 29 press briefing, a State Department official confirmed that “the ordered departure will result in more than half of the embassy footprint being reduced.” We’re not sure where AP and CNN got the “60 percent” figure.

Headlines

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

Vague and dramatizes U.S.-Cuba relations.

AP’s headline says U.S.-Cuba relations are “threatened” by the U.S. orders. The two countries have voiced disagreement about the situation, but does that mean their ties are “threatened”? Maybe, but not necessarily.

Concise and factual, so it doesn’t distort what happened.

Inaccurately implies the cause of health issues is known.

While sound waves are a possible cause being investigated, calling them “‘acoustic’ attacks” is misleading because investigators haven’t established that as the cause.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • The decision to expel Cuban diplomats from the U.S. means “tensions” are “escalating” and relations are “rapidly unraveling.” It’s a big problem, and could lead to undoing the diplomatic ties that were restored in 2015 during the Obama administration.
  • The U.S. is retaliating against Cuba and it is the right thing to do, since Americans are being attacked and Cuba is either complicit or not providing enough protection. (AP, The New York Times)
  • The U.S.’ decision to reduce staff and expel diplomats is based on political pressure. (Reuters)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • The U.S. said it withdrew embassy staff for safety purposes, and it might be normal diplomatic protocol to require embassy staffing levels to be reciprocal. So it doesn’t necessarily signal “plunging diplomatic ties” and a dramatic escalation in tensions, or that relations will return to how they were during the Cold War.
  • The investigations, both by the FBI and the Cuban authorities, have not produced evidence of what is causing the symptoms in the embassy personnel, nor evidence of any wrongdoing by Cuba. It may be prudent for the U.S. to reduce staffing until the situation is resolved, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the U.S. is retaliating.
  • We don’t really know why the State Department decided what it did, beyond what it says. (It says the decision is to maintain “equity in our respective diplomatic operations” and it will continue cooperation.) The decision could involve political pressure, or maybe it’s justified and reasonable given the state of the investigation.

Timeline