Lessons from the media’s reporting on the Thai cave rescue

One of the topics the Knife analyzes is accidents and natural disasters. News coverage on these topics tends to be distorted, taking an already tragic or unfortunate event and dramatizing it. The news of the rescue of the first four boys from the Thai cave had some added drama, but three of the four outlets analyzed here reported on the rescue efforts more objectively than usual.

Sunday’s Thai cave coverage had the highest ratings of all, except for one news outlet. Although this sample is limited, it shows that more than half of the news reports analyzed are distorted upwards of 54.5 percent on average.

Here’s a look at how the rescue coverage was different, and what news consumers and the media can learn from it.

Factual vs. dramatic reporting

Three outlets rated “factual” in The Knife’s system: CNNBBC and The Associated Press (take a look at their individual ratings here). This means they had minimal spin and were largely balanced. NBC News’ article, on the other hand, earned the lowest integrity rating of 51 percent. Compare NBC’s lead sentence with CNN’s, which rated the highest at 81 percent; the spin is marked below.

Four of the 12 boys who have been trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand for more than two weeks have been rescued, as the operation was put on hold overnight to allow oxygen tanks to be refilled. (CNN)
Rescuers in northern Thailand on Sunday extracted at least four members of a youth soccer team from the cave where they had been trapped for more than two weeks, signaling the final act of a saga that has gripped the world. (NBC News)

Notice how CNN’s lead provides the essential information to understand the story, and does so in a neutral, data-based way. NBC’s rendition sensationalizes the information with language that’s subjective, vague and dramatic. The added spin may be entertaining, but it detracts from readers arriving at a similar, objective understanding of the events. What exactly constitutes the “final act of a saga” anyway? Here’s another example from NBC:

The resilience of the boys and their coach captured the imagination of a global audience. Before their discovery, they subsisted by licking drops of water off the cave wall.
The mood lifted after the team was found, but elation at their discovery quickly turned to fear as authorities mulled over several rescue options — all of them fraught with danger.

Again, the outlet uses terms that may get readers more emotionally involved, but the descriptions are ultimately subjective and may not necessarily add to a reader’s understanding of the story.

Factual vs. slanted reporting

All of the articles were slanted to some degree, meaning they favored one point of view instead of giving significant weight to multiple perspectives. There were two main slants in this coverage: one positive, one negative. AP and NBC favored the perspective that the rescue of the first four boys meant that the subsequent rescue efforts would be successful and would soon come to an end. BBC and CNN favored the viewpoint that although the four were rescued, the mission was challenging and risky, and things could have gotten worse.

Considering previous coverage of the rescue efforts, which included a number of expert opinions on the risks and possibilities for getting the boys and their coach out, both perspectives are valid. In life-and-death situations such as these, there’s usually a chance for success and failure. Objective reporting would present both possibilities with sufficient data to back each perspective. This way readers could come to their own conclusions, as opposed to being led by an outlet’s perspective. In this coverage, there was some lack of balance (in other words, outlets emphasized either the positive or negative scenario), and this partly accounts for the four articles’ slant ratings.

News outlets reported Tuesday that the 12 boys and their coach had been rescued. The story itself has inspired teams of international experts, as well as innovators such as Elon Musk, to work together to find solutions. It’s also inspired journalists to write op-eds and analyses that honor the rescue efforts, and the public’s concern for the wellbeing of the children and their coach. It’s hard to tell what prompted news outlets to report more objectively on this story compared to others. Whatever the case, more objective, honorable news reporting like this is something all media can learn from. What’s more, it would provide society an invaluable resource.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media