Political news is often distorted. What about World Cup coverage?

News consumers are used to certain types of coverage being highly distorted — perhaps most notably U.S. political news. How would a prominent international sports event do by comparison, in terms of The Knife’s ratings? We analyzed two sets of articles about the World Cup (each covered by the same two outlets), and found the coverage was spun and slanted.

As a quick comparison, here are the ranges of the World Cup articles’ total integrity, slant and spin ratings, compared to two recent events that received significant media attention: the G7 and the Trump-Kim summits. The integrity ratings were fairly similar, and the World Cup coverage was the most slanted of the three events.

The Germany–Mexico match

It’s no secret that both Germany and Brazil are favorites in this World Cup. Germany isn’t only the reigning champion — it has claimed a total of four World Cup titles. Brazil’s five titles — as well as its earning twice each second-, third- and fourth-place finishes — make it the most successful team in the competition’s history.

Sure, underdog Mexico’s victory over Germany may have come as a surprise, but it may be a half-surprise because favorites are upset in sports all the time. One could argue it’s part of the nature of sports: a team beating the reigning champion, elevating its game while elevating the sport itself.

ESPN and The New York Times both slanted their coverage in favor of Mexico, dramatizing Germany’s loss. Look at the Times’ descriptions side-by-side (the vague, subjective or dramatic language is marked below):

The German team …

  • seemed flummoxed by the Mexicans’ speed and directness
  • seemed out of sorts for most of the game
  • seemed put off by Mexico’s initiative, its willingness to attack in numbers and, perhaps most important, by its speed
  • [has] given up the steering wheel in the group to Mexico

The Mexican team …

  • stuns Germany at the World Cup
  • [provided] the first major surprise of the 2018 World Cup
  • never surrendered
  • [Hirving] Lozano turned Germany’s Mesut Özil inside out
  • arrived in Russia with its most talented, most experienced, most highly regarded team in years. It surely now feels anything must be possible

ESPN had similar descriptions. For example, it called the goal-scoring Lozano a “hero” in its lead sentence, Mexico’s start of the game “blistering,” and its goal as “the goal they deserved.” It also wrote that the German team was “suddenly looking ragged” and that it was “struggling to muster much threat.”

The spin may add entertainment value, but it also has a drawback: As long as outlets don’t denote what’s opinion or distortion, compared to what’s objective fact, they may train readers to conflate the two. One could argue that in the world of sports the non-differentiation is harmless — and it might be. But the process in thinking (the conflating of fact and fiction) is the same when brought to other contexts, such as politics and world news.

The Brazil–Switzerland match

The Germany-Mexico coverage was slanted in a way that emphasized the underdog’s win. The coverage of the Brazil-Switzerland match was a little different: it emphasized that Brazil should have won (while many likely shared this expectation, it’s an expectation nonetheless). Consider the same outlets’ headlines (clue: let the spin lead the way!).

Brazil held to shock draw by Switzerland in Group E opener (ESPN)
For Brazil, a Disappointing Start to World Cup (NYT)

It’s not to say Brazil’s tie wasn’t a “shock” or “disappointing” to its fans, but the descriptions are subjective and could cast the team in a negative light.

ESPN also wrote that Brazil “pushed hard for the winner … but had to settle for a draw.” The tone here may be closer to that of a competitive parent who is disappointed in a child losing a match. That’s not the same as objectively reporting what happened during the game, the results, and what players and coaches said.

The Times’ coverage was similar in this regard. The outlet wrote in its last section:

Brazil Looking for Redemption
Last time we saw Brazil in a World Cup, well, let’s just not talk about that. There are six players on the current Brazilian squad that were also part of the team that was embarrassed by Germany in 2014, but this year’s edition expects nothing less than to win it all.

It’s not a problem for journalists to express their opinions when reporting the news. Opinion can indeed be valuable, especially in op-eds, analyses and other similar pieces. What’s limiting is presenting opinion as fact. This is one of the reasons The Knife advocates separating the two and why it has two key sections in each analysis: the Raw Data (just the facts) and The Distortion (which may contain opinion, and it’s noted as such).

The end goal?

It’s not uncommon for opinion to be part of sports reporting. Most sports fans know that when they’re watching a match, commentators are delivering the facts live, while providing expert opinions on what’s unfolding. Live commentary provides insights, as well as a very human type of rapport or entertainment that makes watching sports not just enjoyable, but a cultural experience.

It’s possible that written sports reporting can balance both of those aspects — objective reporting and the journalist’s opinions. A clear separation between the two might bring readers the best of both worlds.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media