Swaying public opinion on NAFTA before negotiations have concluded
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Swaying public opinion on NAFTA before negotiations have concluded

October 12, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US, Canada, Mexico initiate new round of NAFTA negotiations

A new round of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations started on Wednesday. U.S., Canadian and Mexican officials are meeting near Washington to renegotiate the terms of the 1994 agreement. It is the fourth round of such negotiations since President Donald Trump took office. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said he would seek to renegotiate NAFTA’s terms, claiming it has increased the U.S. trade deficit and moved manufacturing jobs abroad. He said if renegotiation was not possible, he would terminate the agreement.

Meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the White House on Wednesday, Trump said “It’s possible we won’t be able to make a deal, and it’s possible that we will.” He added, “We’ll see if we can do the kind of changes that we need. We have to protect our workers. And in all fairness, the prime minister wants to protect Canada and his people also.”

Trudeau said, “Overall with the little challenges that come up, we will be able to talk through and work through, but the overall picture is what we can’t lose sight of.” Trump also said he would be open to a trade agreement with Canada or Mexico, if negotiators failed to reach an overall agreement between the three countries.

The negotiations are being led by Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on the U.S. side. Media reports say some of the issues to be discussed are:

  • A so-called “sunset clause” that would cause NAFTA to expire automatically, unless all three countries vote every five years to renew it.
  • The Rules of Origin, which determine how much of a product needs to be produced in North America to qualify for tariff-free trade among the three countries. For products to qualify for tariff-free trade, the U.S. is proposing increasing the minimum level of North American-produced parts in automotive industry products from 62.5 percent to 85 percent, and requiring that 50 percent of the content be manufactured in the U.S.
  • Changes to investor-state dispute settlement rules, which currently allow companies to sue the three governments for unfair treatment under NAFTA rules.
  • U.S. proposals to limit the number of U.S. federal contracts that Mexican and Canadian companies can bid on and win.

Organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (COC) and the American Farm Bureau (AFB) have expressed concerns about possible effects of terminating NAFTA. The AFB says U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico and Canada have increased from $8.9 billion in 1993 to $38.1 billion in 2016 due to NAFTA. If the agreement is terminated, some agricultural products would change from zero export duties to, for example, 45 percent on turkey and 75 percent on chicken, according to The New York Times.

On Tuesday, the COC, on behalf of more than 310 state and local chambers of commerce, sent a letter to Trump outlining its support for his efforts to “modernize” the agreement, but asking him not to terminate it.

Distortion Highlights

  • The media coverage we analyzed on the NAFTA negotiations suggests it’s going to be terminated.
  • While this is certainly a possibility, there are other potential outcomes the articles didn’t mention.
  • See how omitting those perspectives, as well as crucial data and added spin, prematurely biases our outlook on these negotiations before they’ve concluded.

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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

  • Devastating

    In both Canada and Mexico, Mr. Trump is unpopular, and caving to his demands could have devastating consequences for local politicians. (The New York Times)

  • Showdown

    That position puts the group at odds with the Republican President, setting up a showdown between the heavyweight political group and the White House. (CNN)

  • Spooked

    Business leaders have become spooked by the increasing odds of the trade deal’s demise, and on Monday, more than 310 state and local chambers of commerce sent a letter to the administration urging the United States to remain in Nafta. (The New York Times)

  • Vehemently

    The Chamber of Commerce, a reliably Republican organization, has vehemently opposed significant changes to NAFTA, leading a public campaign against any changes. (CNN)

  • Swift condemnation

    That provision has drawn swift condemnation from the chamber and other industry groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, which say that it would instill so much uncertainty in the future of Nafta that it would basically nullify the trade agreement. (The New York Times)

  • Swelling

    Mr. Trump has blamed NAFTA for swelling U.S. trade gaps and stealing factory jobs. (CBS News)

  • Unrelenting

    But most business leaders had hoped that the president, whose Nafta criticism has been unrelenting, would be content to oversee tweaks to modernize the agreement, and then call it a political transformation. (The New York Times)

  • Ire

    NAFTA, implemented by former President Bill Clinton in 1994, has drawn considerable political ire in recent years because of working class job losses, many of which have been blamed on free trade. (CNN)

  • Aggressive

    Trade experts say the NAFTA talks are likely to stall in the face of aggressive U.S. attempts to sharply increase content requirements for autos and auto parts. (Reuters)

    Trump administration negotiators are bringing an aggressive position on trade to the North America Free Trade Agreement negotiating table, demanding several provisions that some worry will sink the deal and give President Donald Trump a reason to scrap the agreement entirely, business leaders and sources with knowledge of the proceedings tell CNN. (CNN)

There are many possible outcomes for the NAFTA negotiations now underway in Washington, but why focus on just one?

The outlets we analyzed suggest this and only this: the agreement may come to an end, and if it does, it’ll be damaging to the economies involved. Terminating the agreement is entirely possible, and Trump has said it’s an option if negotiations don’t meet certain conditions he has. But the outlets don’t back this perspective with a lot of data, and they also don’t mention other outcomes that may be worth considering.

Here are three mechanisms these articles used to favor this impression.

1. Spin

Some of the terms used are dramatic and alarming, suggesting or stating that the agreement’s end is near. Here’s the spin (in red) in The New York Times’ lead sentence, for example.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, long a punching bag for President Trump, is edging closer toward collapse as negotiators gather for a fourth round of contentious talks here this week.

Notice how these terms help create a negative, worst-case-scenario impression without providing any data as to why. Some people think ending NAFTA would be good, but the choice of language here suggests it’s bad news, especially after reading the pact’s “demise is imminent” in the Times’ headline.

2. Slanted sources

The outlets biased the coverage by citing more sources who expressed concerns about the agreement ending, compared to those who suggested other outcomes are possible too. For instance, CNN includes 16 opinions that either indicate the agreement could end or that express concerns about these negotiations. Only one reference in the article offers an alternate perspective, which is that White House aides didn’t confirm the proposals that are reportedly cause for concern, adding that “negotiations are far from over.” When you weigh the two perspectives (16 to one), it may be harder to consider good things could come from these negotiations.

3. Missing data

The articles didn’t provide a lot of data to understand which parts of NAFTA are beneficial and which aren’t (and to whom), what specifically could change in these negotiations and, if those changes do happen, what the benefits and drawbacks would be. There’s also data missing from the opinions or concerns they cited. For instance, Reuters wrote:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday accused Trump’s administration of trying to sabotage the talks with “poison pill proposals”, including demands for more favorable treatment for the U.S. side on car production, and a “sunset clause” to force regular negotiations.

In its article, Reuters doesn’t explain what the COC leader meant by “poison pill proposals,” or why specifically a “more favorable treatment” of the U.S. automotive industry or a “sunset” clause would “sabotage” negotiations. So we walk away with a vague but negative impression, without really understanding why.

This is how spin, slanted sources and missing data all work together to support one main perspective that, in this case, isn’t a well-supported argument in terms of data. Again, maybe the deal will come to an end, but it’s premature to say given nothing’s happened yet.

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

  • 31% Spun

  • 37% Spun

  • 78% Spun

  • 85% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

CNN

“The Chamber of Commerce, a reliably Republican organization, has vehemently opposed significant changes to NAFTA, leading a public campaign against any changes.”

The COC opens its Monday letter to Trump with, “[we] support your efforts to modernize NAFTA,” and ends with, “we urge you to [protect and preserve] the deep economic ties and benefits the United States continues to enjoy under NAFTA.”

The New York Times

“For months, some of the most powerful business leaders in the country, and the lobbies and political figures that represent them, had hoped that the president’s strong wording was more a negotiating tactic than a real threat and that he would ultimately go along with their agenda of modernization.”

At an August rally in Phoenix, Trump said, “I don’t think we can make a deal [with Mexico and Canada on NAFTA] because we have been so badly taken advantage of.” On Monday, the COC sent Trump a letter on behalf of more than 310 state and local chambers of commerce. The letter outlined their support for Trump’s efforts to “modernize” NAFTA and asked him not to terminate it.

Fact Comparison

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

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he would be open to doing a bilateral trade deal with Canada but not Mexico if talks between the three countries over the North American Free Trade Agreement fall apart. (Reuters)


Reuters first published that Trump wouldn’t be open to a bilateral trade deal with Mexico if NAFTA talks didn’t result in an updated agreement. Reuters later updated its story and corrected this inaccuracy, writing that Trump said he was open to bilateral trade deals with either Mexico or Canada.

The American Farm Bureau is a group leading a campaign against NAFTA changes. (CNN)


Saying the bureau is leading a campaign “against NAFTA changes” may imply the campaign is against “any” rather than “some” changes. On its website, the bureau claims it supports the U.S. protecting its agricultural interests under NAFTA and calls for any renegotiation to protect the gains in agricultural trade, while working to remove “remaining barriers” with Canada and Mexico. Removing said “barriers” would constitute “some” changes to the agreement.

If the deal does fall apart, the United States, Canada and Mexico would revert to average tariffs that are relatively low — just a few percent in most cases. (The New York Times)


None of the outlets mention that if the U.S. withdraws from NAFTA, in the absence of other action, existing tariff rates would apply for another year. This information comes from a May 2017 report on NAFTA by the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS), which also says that during this time, the president could reinstate tariffs that existed prior to NAFTA, which are likely what the Times is referring to.

Headlines

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

Implies there may be conflicts in the negotiations.

The spin in this headline suggests a difficult road ahead without explaining why. Implying possible conflict, instead of stating what the limitations may be, biases but doesn’t promote understanding.

States as fact the outlet’s interpretation of what Trump said.

It doesn’t follow to suggest that Trump’s statements are a sign of how negotiations will progress. Bottom line, we don’t know where negotiations will head.

Doesn’t say Trump would consider a deal with Mexico without Canada.

This headline is one-sided and potentially misleading, suggesting the U.S. is more likely to reach an agreement with Canada than Mexico.

Balance

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

The media’s slant:
  • Either Trump is making a bad decision by threatening to withdraw from NAFTA, which could be damaging to the U.S. economy, or it’s a good decision that’ll protect the country’s interests and workers.  
  • Trump is proposing changes to NAFTA that he knows are unacceptable to Canada and Mexico, in the hopes that one of them will withdraw from the agreement and be blamed for its dissolution.
  • Ending NAFTA would further disrupt the U.S.-Mexico relationship, and could end “bilateral cooperation in non-trade areas” between the two countries.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • NAFTA has advantages and disadvantages, and there could be both advantages and disadvantages to terminating it — the articles provide little data on either perspective. Without this, it’s hard to gauge the specific effects that could come from changing or annulling the agreement.
  • Mexico and Canada may not agree with Trump’s conditions for NAFTA, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the deal would be dissolved, or that Trump is manipulating the situation to shift responsibility to either of the two parties, should it come to that. Trump’s conditions may be valid, and his or the other nations’ proposed changes could result in improvements to NAFTA that would benefit all.
  • The U.S. and Mexico have a long-standing relationship and share a border. It’s unlikely that a single agreement is the tipping factor in maintaining diplomatic relations. If NAFTA ends, it could be replaced with a different agreement.

Timeline