Want some spin? Add some Trump.
Photo by AP Images

Want some spin? Add some Trump.

August 6, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

UN Security Council approves resolution to impose new sanctions on North Korea

On Saturday, the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose new sanctions on North Korea, including banning exports and limiting the employment of North Korean workers abroad. The sanctions would result in an estimated $1 billion loss in revenue for North Korea, whose total annual export revenue is around $3 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The resolution prohibits North Korea from exporting coal, iron, lead, lead ore and seafood, and bans foreign countries from hiring new North Korean workers. A U.N. diplomat said this year North Korea was expected to earn $295 million from seafood, $251 million from iron and iron ore, and $400 million from coal trade, Reuters reported.

The resolution also prohibits member countries from initiating new or expanded joint ventures with North Korea, as well as any new investment in current joint ventures. Nine individuals and four entities were also added to the U.N. blacklist, meaning their assets have been suspended and they are subject to a global travel ban.

North Korea has been subject to U.N. sanctions since 2006 that prohibit its development of nuclear weapons and missiles. The latest resolution is a response to North Korea’s testing of two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in July, according to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Those missiles appeared to be capable of reaching Europe or the continental United States, according to media outlets. Since 2006, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests and fired at least 50 missiles.

Distortion Highlights

  • When a news story involves Trump, outlets generally report it with a lot more drama and emotionality.
  • We can prove this in numbers. We compared The Washington Post’s coverage on North Korea on Sunday with its reporting on the same topic exactly a month ago.
  • There was little drama and hype this time around, and the ratings were much higher.
  • The difference? Last month, Trump was a main part of the news. On Sunday, he was barely mentioned.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

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

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Threat/threatened

    Diplomats said this raised the stakes and elevated North Korea’s military and nuclear threat from regional to global. (The Wall Street Journal)

    Since 2006, North Korea has defied a half-dozen Security Council resolutions over its nuclear and missile development, which North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has called a necessary, just response to military threats by the United States and South Korea. (The New York Times)

    Washington, frustrated that China has not done more to rein in North Korea, has threatened to exert trade pressure on Beijing and impose sanctions on Chinese firms doing business with Pyongyang. (Reuters)

  • Belligerence

    President Trump has repeatedly cajoled China to exert more pressure on North Korea over its nuclear belligerence. (The New York Times)

  • Rogue

    President Trump has expressed disappointment in the failure of China, which accounts for 90 percent of North Korea’s economic activity, to exert sufficient pressure on the rogue regime in Pyongyang. (The Washington Post)

  • Threatened

    Washington, frustrated that China has not done more to rein in North Korea, has threatened to exert trade pressure on Beijing and impose sanctions on Chinese firms doing business with Pyongyang. (Reuters)

  • Long Warned

    Diplomats and sanctions experts have long warned that export revenues, even remittances from foreign workers, are cycled back to North Korea’s military and nuclear programs. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Provocations

    China and Russia, the council’s two permanent members who resisted new economic sanctions on North Korea, ultimately endorsed the resolution, saying the rogue nation’s recent provocations were unacceptable. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Already meager

    The resolution, intended to press North Korea to renounce its nuclear militarization, could reduce the isolated country’s already meager annual export revenue by $1 billion, or about a third of its current total. (The New York Times)

  • Painstakingly

    Ms. Haley described the new penalties, which the United States painstakingly negotiated with China, North Korea’s most important trading partner, as “the most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation.” (The New York Times)

  • Toil

    Human rights advocates have criticized his exploitation of their toil as slave labor. (The New York Times)

The new U.S. administration has brought many surprises: new policies announced on Twitter, public criticism of cabinet officials, and fighting between the White House and the media, to name a few. There’s another key change that affects us all, but may be difficult to pinpoint: there’s more spin in media coverage. It’s true: when a news story involves Trump, outlets generally report it with a lot more drama and emotionality.

We can prove it in numbers. We compared The Washington Post’s coverage on North Korea on Sunday with its reporting on the same topic exactly a month ago. The news then focused on remarks Trump made about North Korea during a visit to Poland, following the news that the North had fired a ballistic missile two days earlier. Sunday’s coverage was also about North Korea, but the news came out of the U.N. and didn’t directly involve the president.

The Post’s coverage is significantly less distorted this time around: on July 6, it earned a 38 percent total integrity rating, whereas today, it was at 72 percent:
















What might account for the difference? One word: Trump. Let’s look at some comparative highlights in the most distorted area, which is spin.

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

  • 27% Spun

  • 50% Spun

  • 55% Spun

  • 67% Spun

How much spin?

On Sunday, the Post didn’t include any spin terms in its headline or first three sentences, introducing the news in an unbiased, data-based way. Where did the first spin terms appear in the July coverage? In the headline, and then in 34 out of a total of 40 sentences. Here’s that headline, with the spin terms noted in red: “Trump warns of ‘severeconsequences for North Korea as Russia, China balk at tough U.S. talk”

Compare the leads

The following was the most distorted sentence in the July article. It also happened to be the article’s lead sentence, so imagine how it set the tone:

“President Trump warned Thursday that North Korea could face “some pretty severe” consequences after its defiant test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, but Washington also confronted firm opposition from Russia and China over any possible response.”

Words like “warned,” “defiant” and “firm” are imprecise, subjective and make the news more sensational. In contrast, here’s the lead sentence from Sunday’s article:

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Saturday to impose new sanctions on North Korea, banning exports that supply up to a third of the country’s annual $3 billion earnings.

Here, there’s no drama, no hype; it’s just what happened. Incidentally, there’s no Trump to be found.  

Reporting the disagreement

With three of the world’s most powerful nations involved in the conflict (China, Russia and the U.S.), it stands to reason they’re not always going to see eye-to-eye on how to approach North Korea. The media can report the disagreements factually, or it can spin them. Here’s one such statement from today.

“The United States had initially hoped to ban oil exports and additional banking and commercial penalties, which were opposed by China and Russia.”

No spin, just the facts, as unbiased journalism should be. Now, compare that to a sentence in the July story.

“Over the years, Trump has said again and again that China is the key to squeezing the regime into submission. However, China does not appear willing to topple Kim.”

That’s a lot of spin, a lot of opinion and a lot of Trump. Both stories are about North Korea, yet it’s interesting to observe that when the president’s involved, reporters become more dramatic. What do you think: pattern or coincidence?


The New York Times

“The measure’s unanimous approval … partly reflected growing impatience with North Korea by China …”

China voted to impose the new sanctions.

The Washington Post

“Passage of the new resolution follows nearly a month of U.S.-Chinese negotiations over the text, bolstered with administration warnings that it was preparing to lodge unrelated complaints against Beijing at the World Trade Organization.”

The U.S. and China negotiated the text for almost one month. Last week, news outlets said the U.S. may investigate Chinese trade practices.

Fact Comparison

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

North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and fired 14 ballistic missiles since 2006, when the Security Council imposed sanctions on the country calling for it to halt its nuclear and military program. (The Wall Street Journal)

According to U.S. government sources, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests since 2006, not two. A Department of Defense document lists tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013. One test in January 2016 and another in September 2016 were confirmed by the Department of State and former President Obama, respectively. North Korea has also launched more than 14 ballistic missiles since 2006.

Here is a list of some of the at least 58 North Korean ballistic missile tests reported by U.S. or U.N. official sources between 2009 and today.

Last month, North Korea fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles within target range of the continental U.S. and Europe. (The Wall Street Journal)

The latest resolution was a direct reaction to two North Korean tests last month of intercontinental ballistic missiles that appeared capable of reaching the continental United States. (The New York Times)

By saying North Korea’s missiles are capable of hitting the U.S., but not mentioning Europe, the Times may give readers an impression that the U.N. resolution was primarily motivated by the possible danger to the U.S., but does not provide evidence of this. The 14 other nations one of the Security Council deemed the new sanctions necessary as well.


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

Keeps it subjective by calling the sanctions “tough.” That’s an opinion, right?

While these sanctions would cost North Korea more than any others to date, “tough” doesn’t inform readers what the sanctions actually translate to in dollars.

Sarcastic tone could trivialize matters of state and diplomacy, reducing them to tabloid banter.

Considering the potential consequences of these sanctions on North Korea, and in particular, its citizens, who may bear some or most of the effects, reporting on this news in a derisive way may fall short of journalistic principles.

Fact based, without the sensationalist bells and whistles — just the news.


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

The media’s slant:
  • The imposition of U.N. sanctions is good, because they may ultimately lead to North Korea’s denuclearization or to negotiations with the South.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • The articles don’t discuss what, if any, consideration has been given to the effects of the sanctions, beyond the hope they’ll force the government to cooperate. It’s possible there may be other outcomes, and they might be useful to consider.  
  • The articles also don’t provide data about how North Korea’s nuclear program is funded, which makes it difficult to accurately assess how much it will be affected by the new sanctions. They also don’t provide specifics about why previous sanctions have not had the intended effect. While it’s possible the outlets don’t have this information, they can bring up these points for readers to consider. Without mentioning them, these sanctions may seem potentially more effective than those imposed in the past.
0 Free articles Left

Support the real news. Get the Knife

Stories read in the last 30 days

-June 21st 2018, Hurricane Maria reached Category 5. Some of the media’s spin did too. Read the story>
-June 21st 2018, A look at the spin in the recent North Korea coverage Read the story>
-June 21st 2018, US imposes 25% steel, 10% aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico, EU starting June 1 Read the story>
-June 21st 2018, In an emergency, data is better than drama. The Harvey coverage hasn’t always delivered. Read the story>
-June 21st 2018, Want some spin? Add some Trump. Read the story>