Kim Jong Un’s visit to China: Breaking down the distortion in the media coverage

There’s fact, and then there’s interpretation of fact. The former is a staple of objective journalism; the latter often opens the door to opinion. To illustrate the difference, this analysis looks at the coverage of Kim Jong Un’s visit to China in two news outlets: Reuters and The New York Times.

Headlines

Reuters: China says North Korea's Kim pledged commitment to denuclearization
NYT: Kim Jong-un’s China Visit Strengthens His Hand in Nuclear Talks

The Reuters headline recounts the main news. Although there’s some vagueness in the words its uses, it basically summarizes something Kim said. The Times’ headline, on the other hand, tells people what the visit supposedly means, before stating what actually happened.

The Times suggests that Kim’s visit gives him a strategic advantage in the nuclear talks. This may but true in some sense, but the article doesn’t provide sufficient reasoning to prove that this is true (see below for more on this). When a news article draws conclusions without stating the premises used to support them, it earns a lower logic score in The Knife’s ratings.

First paragraph

Reuters: North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un pledged his commitment to denuclearization and to meet U.S. officials, China said on Wednesday after his meeting with President Xi Jinping, who promised China would uphold friendship with its isolated neighbour.
NYT: With a dose of mystery and the flair of a showman, North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, used his debut as an international statesman on Wednesday to present himself as confident, reasonable — and willing to bargain.

These two sentences may seem like they’re from different stories. The Reuters sentence has some more vague terms, such as the word “friendship,” but overall it states the main news.

On the other hand, the Times’ lead sentence reads like a novel. The only facts are that Kim Jong Un is a young leader and that he did something on Wednesday — the rest is opinion. Phrases like “dose of mystery” or the “flair of a showman” are sensational and not data-based. The latter half of the sentence assumes to know how Kim wanted to present himself — that’s the reporter’s own projection.

Second paragraph

Reuters: After two days of speculation, China and North Korea both confirmed that Kim had travelled to Beijing and met Xi during what China called an unofficial visit from Sunday to Wednesday.
NYT: Mr. Kim’s surprise two-day visit to Beijing, his first known trip abroad since taking power, was effectively a reminder of how much he has set the agenda in the crisis over his nation’s nuclear arsenal — and of what a strong hand he has going into talks, first with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea next month and later with President Trump.

More facts from Reuters. It’s a basic who, what, where and when. The Times begins with a couple facts, but then draws a similar conclusion as in its headline.

It’s plausible that the China trip will afford Kim certain advantages in the negotiations, but the Times doesn’t say what those advantages are. Also, as noted above, the article doesn’t explain why the trip gives him an advantage. Is it because he has “set the agenda”? If so, how has he done that and how does that help? Could there be other ways to interpret his visit?

Later, the Times article says Kim will have a stronger position “if China decides to soften its stance on sanctions and act as North Korea’s protector.” But it hasn’t been determined whether China will do this, so this couldn’t prove a “strong hand” at this point.

Third paragraph

Reuters: The visit was Kim’s first known trip outside North Korea since he assumed power in 2011 and is believed by analysts to serve as preparation for upcoming summits with South Korea and the United States.
NYT: Mr. Kim has yet to say what concessions he is willing to make, or what he may demand from the United States in return. But he continued to dominate the diplomatic process, reaffirming his willingness to meet with Mr. Trump and repeating his vague commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in talks with President Xi Jinping of China, according to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency.

In the Reuters sentence, there’s some speculation here about the purpose of the visit, but it doesn’t have a strong slant. The rest of the sentence is data.

The Times makes another opinionated claim without giving an explanation, and this leads to unanswered questions. How has the newspaper determined that Kim is “dominating the diplomatic process”? Is it his apparent willingness to meet with Trump and denuclearize? Is it improved relations with China? What exactly does it mean to “dominate the diplomatic process” in any case? It’s not clear.

Ratings and conclusion

The differences between the two outlets’ reporting are reflected in The Knife’s overall integrity ratings: Reuters received 67 percent while the Times got 27 percent. Particularly notable was the slant rating: Reuters was just 18 percent slanted while the Times was 76 percent slanted.

Overall, The Times’ slant supported the notion that North Korea has a greater advantage ahead of the talks, and this is at Trump’s disadvantage. This may be true and it’s an important perspective to consider. But it’s only one way of interpreting the facts, and the article didn’t present alternate perspectives.

This is one effect of stating opinion as fact and drawing conclusions without supporting evidence. It’s a type of journalism that tells readers what to think. Another approach would be to give people facts and well-reasoned arguments — they may be more inspired to think for themselves.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media