NATO’s meeting on defense: Two different takes on the same story

It’s not uncommon to hear two sides of an argument and marvel at the stark difference between the points of view. What’s becoming more common is to read two media articles that, upon comparison, reveal they’re both reporting on the same news event. Wednesday’s NATO meeting coverage captures that very experience. What accounts for the difference in stories? The media’s slant. Compare these two statements:

President Trump wasted no time. NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, could barely finish the protocol greetings at Wednesday’s breakfast when Mr. Trump launched into a clearly preplanned attack on Germany, its level of military spending and dependence on Russia for natural gas. (The New York Times)
Speaking at a bilateral breakfast meeting with the Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Jens Stoltenberg, President Trump was blunt, calling out Germany for taking from NATO with one hand while giving to Russia with the other. (Breitbart)

The Times’ lead sentence paints President Trump’s comments at the first NATO meeting as an embarrassment to the U.S. and its allies, while Breitbart frames them as a success and corrective of the organization. Which was it?

Both. And neither. The two are different takes on the same event — they share elements that depict what happened, but each takes readers’ impressions in a completely different direction. That’s how slant works.

Spin (which is subjective, vague and often dramatic language) is usually a useful clue in detecting slant. Consider the specific terms marked above in the outlets’ leads, noticing how each selection paints a very different picture.

The other two outlets The Knife analyzed followed suit: Deutsche Welle had a similar slant as the Times, and Fox News as Breitbart. Examine these excerpts from Fox:

NATO leaders pledged their “unwavering commitment” to boost defense spending on Wednesday, following stern words from President Trump criticizing European leaders for spending too little.
As NATO vows to pursue those targets, Trump is seeking even more.

The way Fox juxtaposed the leaders’ decisions to commit to increased spending with Trump’s criticisms suggest he was responsible for their decision. In other words, Trump whipped NATO leaders into shape.

While possible, it’s probably unlikely, given the complexity that goes into each country’s decision making, especially when it comes to defense spending. Furthermore, Fox implied one thing led to the other without substantiating the notion with evidence. Its article wasn’t as spun or slanted as Breitbart’s, which accounts for the difference in the Knife’s integrity ratings: Fox got 44 percent and Breitbart 24 percent out of a possible 100.

Now look at Deutsche Welle’s lead paragraph, which sets the tone for the rest of the article. (It’s a long one, but it’s worth the read.)

Wednesday was a back-and-forth day in Brussels for US President Donald Trump, who was in town to eventually discuss NATO business with delegates from the trans-Atlantic alliance's 28 other member countries. First he was mad at Germany, claiming that the country was “captive” to Russia for its concessions in pursuit of a controversial gas pipeline deal. Then, after a public rebuke from Angela Merkel and a sit-down session with the chancellor, the US president was singing a revised tune, saying the bond between the increasingly uneasy allies was biggermoretremendouseven — than any differences between the leaders.

This outlet kept a timeline of its own, but in this case, it was to seemingly highlight how wrong Trump’s criticisms were. Readers may side with this perspective or Fox’s, but neither (as far presented) would stem from a critical evaluation of what was said and why. (Incidentally, Deutshe Welle’s article received an integrity rating of 44 percent, and the Times’ 43 percent.)

The added drama, or the emphasis on the interpersonal dynamics among NATO leaders doesn’t inform readers about the issues at hand. What each member state invests in defense spending can be better understood with data and neutral descriptions — then readers can make up their own minds about how things are being handled. Objective reporting would relay events as they are, not as they should be according to an outlet’s point of view.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media