Does US media distort more?
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Does US media distort more?

September 4, 2017

Our analysis of how the media covered North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test sparked our curiosity. The Korea Herald and The Korea Times earned the highest ratings in our analysis, with 56 and 51 percent respectively, while The New York Times and The Washington Post earned the lowest (36 and 33 percent). The latter are two of the most reputable news organizations in the U.S. Why was there more distortion in their coverage? Could this represent a general trend in media?

We looked at all our analyses for the past month (from Aug. 2 to Sept. 2). We compared the average ratings for the Times and the Post to the average for the non-U.S. outlets we covered (including BBC, Reuters, AFP, Al Jazeera, The Guardian and Xinhua). Here’s what we found:

The Times and the Post rated lower for North Korea coverage and all the other stories we analyzed. Granted, our sample is limited (we included 12 stories for North Korea coverage and 19 stories for the “other news” category). So we can’t say this is indicative of an overall trend. But the results are consistent within the sample.

As to why there was more distortion in the U.S. outlets, this story on North Korea is a good place to start. Here’s some of what earned the two Korean outlets higher scores:

1. A cleaner lead

The Korean papers start by simply stating the facts, while the U.S. papers bring in drama and opinion. The Korea Times, for example, doesn’t include opinion until the sixth paragraph, and the Herald until the 16th. Ideally, reporters wouldn’t insert their own opinions at all without acknowledging it, but in this case, leading only with the facts helps us assess the news with greater objectivity.

2. Sticking to the data

The Korean outlets acknowledged the launch and its potential effects, but didn’t speculate on future outcomes in dramatic terms, like the Times and the Post did, which explains the latter outlets’ higher spin ratings. For instance, the Post wrote, “But Sunday’s blast — North Korea’s sixth nuclear test but the first since Trump took office — could escalate those tensions to a new level.” Combining the notion of “escalating tensions” with a vague, open-ended “new level” may frighten or alarm, but it doesn’t do much to inform.

3. It’s not all about Trump 

While the U.S. has played a role in the Korean conflict for decades, and Kim Jong-un and his predecessor have made direct threats against the U.S., the conflict is at South Korea’s doorstep. The Korean papers report on South Korea’s response to the test, as well as that of its immediate neighbors, namely Japan and China.

The U.S. outlets, on the other hand, center on President Trump’s role in the conflict and what this latest test could mean for the U.S. They don’t explore the potential impact in Asia as much. Consider The New York Times’ lead sentence, “North Korea carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in an extraordinary show of defiance against President Trump on Sunday, saying it had detonated a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile.” Where’s South Korea in all this? It’s in there, but later.

It’s not necessarily problematic for news outlets to focus on the impact a story could have in their home country—it’s common, in fact. But they can run the risk of giving disproportionate emphasis and slanting their coverage. In this case, the Times and the Post make it seem like North Korea is more of a threat to the U.S. than to South Korea and Japan. Is that true?

Again, this is one case study, and it only includes a small sample of news coverage; we’ll need more to see if it does indicate a general trend. But what does it mean about U.S. journalism that at least in this case, two of the most influential papers distorted information more than outlets from other parts of the world? 

Distortion Highlights

  • Our analysis on North Korea raised a question: is media in the U.S. more distorted than in other parts of the world?
  • We compared our ratings over the last month, and in this sample at least, the scores for U.S. outlets were indeed lower.
  • See the numbers for yourself and find out what contributed to the distortion.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

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

Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Top Spin Words

  • Raised the stakes

    North Korea sharply raised the stakes in its stand-off with the rest of the world Sunday, detonating a powerful nuclear device that it claimed was a hydrogen bomb that could be attached to a missile capable of reaching the mainland United States. (The Washington Post)

  • Important threshold

    Even if Kim Jong Un’s regime is exaggerating its feats, scientific evidence showed that North Korea had crossed an important threshold and had detonated a nuclear device that was vastly more powerful than its last — and almost seven times the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.  (The Washington Post)

  • Losing patience

    While the country’s president, Xi Jinping, fears that a collapse in North Korea could lead to a wave of hungry refugees and a scramble for North Korea’s territory and nuclear weapons, he has shown signs of losing patience with Mr. Kim, recently agreeing to stronger United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang. (The New York Times)

  • Major embarrassment

    The test’s timing was a major embarrassment for Mr. Xi, who on Sunday was hosting a summit meeting of the so-called BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. (The New York Times)

  • Show of defiance

    North Korea carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in an extraordinary show of defiance against President Trump on Sunday … (The New York Times)

  • Blunt warnings

    Tensions had already been running high, with Kim repeatedly defying international condemnation and increasingly blunt warnings by President Trump, and continuing to launch ballistic missiles. (The Washington Post)

  • Serious Provocations

    North Korea’s increasingly serious provocations have prompted the current liberal administration’s Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo to discuss the issue with his US counterpart. (The Korea Herald)

  • Greater Risks

    This was the North’s first nuclear test since President Moon Jae-in took office in May, meaning he faces greater risks in his steps to mend cross-border ties and resume dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (The Washington Post)

  • Tensions

    Just last week, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan, sharply escalating tensions in the region. (The New York Times)

    But Sunday’s blast — North Korea’s sixth nuclear test but the first since Trump took office — could escalate those tensions to a new level. (The Washington Post)

    Tension to escalate further on Peninsula (The Korea Times)

North Korea says it conducted nuclear test for ballistic missile

North Korea said it conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sunday afternoon, and state media called it a “complete success of a hydrogen warhead for an ICBM.” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported it detected an artificial earthquake with a 5.7 magnitude at about 12:29 p.m., coming from North Korea’s test site in Punggye-ri in North Hamgyong Province. The U.S. Geological Survey and Chinese government measured the tremor at a magnitude of 6.3.

South Korea’s meteorological agency said the explosion was as much as six times bigger than North Korea’s last nuclear test, which took place on Sept. 9, 2016. The 2016 test caused a 5.3 magnitude artificial earthquake.

International Response

South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a National Security Council meeting at 1:30 p.m. local time. He said the nuclear test was an “absurd tactical mistake” and that “diplomatic and security ministries should work with the international community to draw up measures to prompt North Korea to give up its nuclear missile program in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” South Korean officials also reportedly discussed the matter with their U.S. and Japanese counterparts.

U.S. President Donald Trump posted on Twitter, saying that North Korea’s “words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States.”

Japan sent specialized planes to try to detect and measure radiation levels, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the test was “absolutely unacceptable.” He also called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

China’s foreign ministry said, “The Chinese government resolutely opposes and strongly condemns this.”

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

  • 49% Spun

  • 50% Spun

  • 62% Spun

  • 72% Spun

Fact Comparison

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

Pyongyang recently launched an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the American mainland. (The New York Times)

The Times presents as fact that the missile is capable of reaching the continental U.S., while The Post says it “could theoretically reach” the country. Although some calculations estimate that a North Korean missile could reach the continental U.S., experts haven’t ascertained the exact level of military technology North Korea possesses or whether it’s capable of achieving this. Given the current information, said capability may be more “theoretical” than actual.

Under the Moon administration, Seoul has renewed efforts to increase its missile capabilities, which are limited under missile guidelines with the U.S. Seoul seeks to raise the maximum payload of locally developed ballistic missiles to 1 ton from the current 500 kilograms. According to Seoul, U.S. President Donald Trump “agreed in principle” to allow the changes sought by Seoul. (The Korea Herald)

The current South Korean administration’s Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo has discussed with his U.S. counterpart the possibility of bringing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons back to South Korea. (The Korea Herald)

This information about how South Korea’s military capabilities may change in the near future can give a more complete understanding of the situation in the region, and how South Korea and its allies may respond. The Korea Herald included this information, but the other three outlets didn’t.

Japan requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. (The New York Times)

The other outlets don’t mention Japan’s request for a U.N. Security Council meeting, which gives a less complete view of what the overall international response to North Korea’s latest test may be.

Seoul is within range of North Korean artillery. (The New York Times)

Knowing the capital of South Korea is within range of North Korea’s artillery is useful to understand the potential effects of armed conflict. This information was included by The New York Times, but not by the other three outlets.

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