Unspinning the media’s coverage of Kim Jong Un’s sister at the Olympics
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Unspinning the media’s coverage of Kim Jong Un’s sister at the Olympics

February 12, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

On Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong attended the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games in South Korea. During the ceremony Kim shook hands with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. She also delivered an invitation from her brother for Moon to visit North Korea at the “earliest date possible.”

Read full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • Headlines are likely the first thing we read, so they can significantly impact our ability to perceive information objectively.
  • The headlines for this story sensationalized Kim Yo Jong’s visit to the Olympics and spun it as a diplomatic win for North Korea.
  • See how this spin can influence our perception of relations between North Korea, South Korea and the U.S.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Political princess

    Here she was, a political princess, but the North Korean “first sister” had none of the hallmarks of power and wealth that Koreans south of the divide have come to expect. (The Washington Post)

  • North Korea’s Ivanka

    [Kim Jong-Un] could not have chosen a better emissary than the one he sent: his only sister, Kim Yo-jong, whom news outlets in the South instantly dubbedNorth Korea’s Ivanka,” likening her influence to that of Ivanka Trump on her father, President Trump. (The New York Times)

  • Sphinxlike

    A woman with a sphinxlike smile who gave nothing away during her three-day Olympic-related visit to South Korea as brother Kim Jong Un’s special envoy. (The Washington Post)

    Flashing a sphinx-like smile and without ever speaking in public, Ms. Kim managed to outflank Mr. Trump’s envoy to the Olympics, Vice President Mike Pence, in the game of diplomatic image-making. (The New York Times)

  • Charm offensive

    A senior Japanese defense official said North Korea’s Games charm offensive could “simply be a way to gain time” until it completed its nuclear and ballistic missile development. (Reuters)

    Before arriving in the South to attend the Winter Games, US Vice President Mike Pence warned that Pyongyang’s charm offensive wasn’t fooling anyone. (CNN)

    A charm offensive versus a propaganda drive, with nuclear ambitions at stake. (CNN)

  • Diplomatic gold

    North Korea has emerged as the early favorite to grab one of the Winter Olympics’ most important medals: the diplomatic gold. (Reuters)

  • Took center stage

    Yesterday, on the first official day of the Games, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of leader Kim Jong Un, took center stage when she met with President Moon Jae-in at South Korea’s presidential palace known as the Blue House … (CNN)

  • Clout

    Her clout, because of her shared bloodline, is unmistakable. (The New York Times)

  • Quietly friendly

    Her quietly friendly approach while in South Korea — photographers repeatedly captured her smiling — seemed to endear her to some observers. (The New York Times)

A headline is likely the first thing we read about a story. As such, headlines tend to be the lens through which we view the rest of what we read, and they can significantly impact our ability to perceive information objectively.

Let’s take a look at some recent headlines about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who recently visited South Korea during its Winter Olympic Games:

The New York Times: Kim Jong-un’s Sister Turns on the Charm, Taking Pence’s Spotlight

CNN: North Korea is winning the Olympics — and it’s not because of sports

The Washington Post: The ‘Ivanka Trump of North Koreacaptivates people in the South at the Olympics

Reuters: North Korea heading for diplomacy gold medal at Olympics

The words in red above are spin, or dramatic language that supports a particular viewpoint. In this case, the viewpoint was that Kim stole the show and won diplomatic points over U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who also attended the Games.

But let’s look at what happens when we remove the spin. The above headlines essentially become:

Kim Jong Un’s sister attended the Olympics in South Korea

That’s a big difference. And spin wasn’t only in the headlines; it was throughout the articles, as indicated by our spin ratings. The New York Times, Reuters, CNN and The Washington Post, respectively, were 84, 74, 69 and 68 percent spun (the higher the number, the more spun the article). See the spin words to the right for some more examples.

What’s the problem with sensationalizing Kim’s visit? For one, the outlets reported their subjective opinion as though it were fact, which distorts objective information. Perhaps more importantly, the spin could influence our perception of North Korea’s relations with the U.S. and South Korea. How does comparing Kim to Ivanka Trump, or describing her “charm” help us build a fact-based, rational understanding of complex international relations? It doesn’t. Instead, the spin suggests an oversimplified, though perhaps persuasive, narrative: North Korea has won this round with the game of diplomacy with the U.S. and Pence missed an opportunity to score points.

Furthermore, one visit from a North Korean diplomat, no matter how Kim’s dressed or what body language she displays, is unlikely to improve relations between these countries on its own. One visit will not, for example, resolve North Korea’s human rights and sanctions violations. Suggesting, and emphasizing, that her visit was a “win” may distract from the facts.

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

  • 68% Spun

  • 69% Spun

  • 74% Spun

  • 84% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The New York Times

“Flashing a sphinx-like smile and without ever speaking in public, Ms. Kim managed to outflank Mr. Trump’s envoy to the Olympics, Vice President Mike Pence, in the game of diplomatic image-making.”

Ms. Kim didn’t speak in public at the Olympics; she smiled some. Pence was at the opening ceremonies.

CNN

“As the Olympic program progresses, another competition plays out beside it in parallel. A charm offensive versus a propaganda drive, with nuclear ambitions at stake.”

Mike Pence and Kim Yo Jong attended the 2108 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. North Korea has tested nuclear weapons.

Reuters

“The warm North-South body language … fanned talk of a split between Seoul and Washington …”

Ms. Kim met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in.

The Numbers

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

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