Subtle slant in the coverage of Bolton’s remarks on North Korea

Sometimes news reports can seem objective, especially if the media focuses most of the coverage on what people say or do. The coverage of National Security Advisor John Bolton’s remarks to the press are similar in this way — the four outlets The Knife analyzed stuck mainly to quotes. However, there were subtle forms of slant that can still affect the way readers take in the information.

Let’s start with the most factual report of the four. CNN’s article earned the second highest integrity score of 76 percent in The Knife’s ratings (where 100 is objective reporting), and the lowest slant rating at 33 percent (where 100 is most slanted). What’s partly responsible for those scores is about 65 percent of the article was made up of quotes, and the writer added minimal opinion and spin.

The Associated Press’ article presents an insightful contrast with respect to slant. AP’s article earned the highest integrity score of 76 percent, but it was the second most slanted article of the group, at 41 percent. Here are two examples where the outlet slanted the information with subjective, dramatic language (marked below).

Despite Trump’s rosy post-summit declaration that the North no longer poses a nuclear threat, Washington and Pyongyang have yet to negotiate the terms under which it would relinquish the weapons that it developed over decades to deter the U.S.
Doubts over North Korea’s intentions have deepened amid reports that it is continuing to produce fissile material for weapons.

The spin could imply the joint U.S.-North Korea declaration is a sham or that Trump was wrong to sign it, and it could also imply North Korea definitely won’t follow through on its commitment to denuclearize. It’s possible the North might break its word (The Knife’s timeline on past negotiations documents a pattern of broken agreements), and it’s also possible it might be willing to cooperate. The limitation in AP’s article is it favors one possibility over others and it does so through implication, rather than presenting a more balanced account.

Reuters’ piece ranked third in the group, with a 67 percent integrity rating. Politico’s article, however, scored a 40 percent integrity rating, the most distorted of the four. Politico’s slant was more overt compared to the other three, beginning with its headline and lead sentence:

Bolton downplays North Korea weapons report
White House national security adviser John Bolton on Sunday downplayed reports suggesting that North Korea is trying to conceal parts of its nuclear weapons program.

Did Bolton “downplay” the reports? No, that’s Politico’s interpretation of what he said. Here’s what he told Fox News:

I am not going to comment on any reports, true, untrue, or partially true, about intelligence … I will just say this: Not answering the specific reports we’ve seen over the weekend … we are using the full range of our capabilities to understand what North Korea is doing.

Two things are problematic: One, the outlet states its opinion as fact, so readers may incorrectly assume Bolton minimized or lessened the report’s information while speaking to the press. Two, Politico reiterated the notion at the start of the article, so it taints the way readers take in the rest of the information.

The outlet’s article had other issues too, including a misleading point and the exclusion of important information. For example, Politico didn’t mention that Bolton projected that North Korea could dismantle “the overwhelming bulk” of  its weapons of mass destruction within a year as long as the country is “cooperative.” CNN, Reuters and AP did include this information.

In a recent analysis, The Knife broke down three common slant techniques, from most to least obvious. Some of the same techniques can be found here, yet in subtler form. Subtle or not, objective, balanced and distortion-free reporting can better inform the public.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media