Is the UN budget cut good or bad news? Depends on which outlet you read.
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Is the UN budget cut good or bad news? Depends on which outlet you read.

December 26, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

On Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said the organization had agreed on a two-year, $5.4 billion operating budget for 2018-2019. The budget was reduced by $285 million, or about 5 percent from the final 2016-2017 budget. The U.N. operating budget is separate from a peacekeeping budget that was reduced in June by $600 million to $6.8 billion for 2017-2018.

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • The U.N. approved a $285 million cut to its annual operating budget. Is this good or bad? Exceptional or customary?
  • Some of the outlets we analyzed suggest it’s one or the other, without actually telling us why.
  • See how slant and spin add dramatic flair to otherwise ordinary facts.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Sad social club

    But the link between American largess and political sympathies at the United Nations has been a recurring theme for Mr. Trump, who once described the 72-year-old organization created after World War II as a sad social club that had squandered its potential. (The New York Times)

  • Fumed

    First President Trump and his ambassador, Nikki R.Haley, fumed that all countries with seats on the Security Council except the United States had opposed American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his decision to put the United States Embassy there. (The New York Times)

  • Dared

    Then Mr. Trump dared the General Assembly to follow the Security Council’s example. “Let them vote against us,” he said. “We will save a lot.” (The New York Times)

  • Historic

    Calling it “a big step in the right direction,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Sunday night announced a historic reduction in the U.N. biennial operating budget. (Fox News)

  • Suspiciously anti-American

    Many among Mr. Trump’s base of supporters regard the organization as suspiciously anti-American. (The New York Times)

  • Excesses

    Ambassador Nikki Haley made the announcement Sunday, but specifically blamed the world body for its budgetary excesses without making a specific reference to last week’s vote on President Donald Trump’s controversial Jerusalem decision. (Newsweek)

  • Slashed

    The U.S. Mission to the United Nations said on Sunday that the U.N.’s 2018-2019 budget would be slashed by over $285 million. (AP)

  • Significant

    The U.S. government says it has negotiated a significant cut in the United Nations budget. (AP)

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations participated in negotiations that reduced the organization’s general operating budget by $285 million for the next two fiscal years. That’s fairly straightforward, and you might think media outlets would report on it in a straightforward way. But they didn’t — except for The Associated Press, whose reporting was mostly balanced and data-based.

The other three outlets we looked at gave little information on the practical consequences of the measure, so it was hard to tell what it actually means (for more on this, click here). Here’s how the other three outlets delivered the information.

Fox News: A victory for Team Trump

Fox News starts its report on a positive note, describing the budget cut as “historic” and citing U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley saying it’s “a big step in the right direction.” Why the measure is “historic” or specifically why it’s a “big” step in the “right direction” are two questions the outlet didn’t answer in its coverage. But the move sounds good, doesn’t it?

Fox also mentions the U.N.’s peacekeeping budget was reduced by $600 million this year “under pressure” from President Donald Trump, and that he “threatened” to limit financial aid to countries that supported a draft resolution calling on the U.S. to reverse its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In both instances, Fox might suggest Trump’s in the driver’s seat when it comes to U.N. negotiations. That may be the case, but the outlet implied the point, instead of substantiating it with data, and it didn’t give a thorough understanding of how these multilateral decisions are reached.

Newsweek: Sweet revenge

Newsweek juxtaposed two facts from the outset: the budget cut and the draft resolution on Jerusalem. In its lead, the outlet wrote the announcement “comes days after more than 120 nations criticized” the U.S. for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Putting both ideas together, which is a slant technique, can suggest the U.S. resented the vote and used the budget cut as payback. This perspective is given a lot of emphasis, given that Trump has been talking about reducing the U.S.’ contribution for months, and in a September speech before the U.N. General Assembly.

Not convinced by that juxtaposition? Here’s another one: Newsweek wrote that Haley “specifically blamed” the U.N. for its “budgetary excesses without making a specific reference to last week’s vote on … Trump’s controversial Jerusalem decision.” Apparently Haley should have made that reference?

The outlet also included a factual inaccuracy that misrepresented the budget cut as stemming from the U.S.’ contribution, which supports the notion that the country is acting unilaterally and possibly to the detriment of U.N. activities (the reduction relates to the U.N.’s overall budget, not the U.S.’ contribution). Again, these implications weren’t backed by data.

The New York Times: International bullying?

The New York Times was the most slanted, most spun article of the four we analyzed. Similar to Newsweek, this outlet suggested the Trump administration is using U.N. negotiations for its own benefit, without regard for its international commitments. The Times wrote, “It was certainly not the first time Ms. Haley had hinted at using America’s financial leverage to get its way at the United Nations.”

The outlet went on to write that Trump “dared” the U.N. General Assembly to vote against the U.S. regarding Jerusalem, that Haley “warned” she’d change the way the U.S. did business with the international organization, and that the U.S. “wields the biggest monetary cudgel.” When you put it all together, we’re left with the impression that the budget cut isn’t a good move, but the impression isn’t based on measurable data.

As readers, it’s useful to base our understanding of issues and measures like this one on data, rather than on implication and dramatic language. Based on this coverage, some readers may conclude the budget cut is either good or bad, but that may be based on an outlet’s slant, rather than on an evaluation of the data. Changes to the U.N. budget will likely carry positive and negative effects — any oversimplification of the perceived “goodness” or “badness” of such a decision is superficial.

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

  • 45% Spun

  • 49% Spun

  • 53% Spun

  • 65% Spun


The New York Times

“But the link between American largess and political sympathies at the United Nations has been a recurring theme for Mr. Trump, who once described the 72-year-old organization created after World War II as a sad social club that had squandered its potential.”

The UN is a 72-year-old organization created after World War II. In 2016, Trump tweeted, saying the U.N. has “such great potential,” but that it has become “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”

The New York Times

“[Critics of Mr. Trump’s approach] say Mr. Trump should not expect others to follow his lead just because the United States wields the biggest monetary cudgel.”

The U.S. is the largest contributor to the U.N. operating budget, funding $1.2 billion of the $5.4 billion budget.

The Numbers

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

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