U.S.-Cuban relations are “rapidly unraveling” and “tensions” are “escalating” in a dramatic series of events culminating in the U.S.’ decision to expel 15 Cuban diplomats. Or at least that’s the impression you might get from reading some of the coverage of the U.S.’ announcement.
The articles we analyzed contain some sweeping claims and overtly dramatic language that give this impression (such as those in our Top Spin section to the right and Fiction or Fact section below). So if you’re looking closely for where the news isn’t objective or is adding opinion, you can probably spot these easily. Yet, media also uses smaller words like “only,” “but” and “just,” which reinforce the dramatic message more subtly, and thus may be harder to spot.
How does it work? Consider the following three examples, first looking at a neutral version, then the news outlet’s version (emphasis added with italics). See how the word choice affects how you take in the information.
1. The Knife version: Five days ago, the U.S. and Cuba maintained dozens of diplomats in the embassies in Havana and Washington that had reopened in 2015…
Compare to AP’s version: “Only days ago, the U.S. and Cuba maintained dozens of diplomats in newly re-opened embassies in Havana and Washington…”
2. The Knife version: The Trump administration decided last week to reduce its staff in Havana down to a group of 27 people who can carry out emergency services.
Compare to The New York Times’ version: “The Trump administration decided last week to pare its staff in Havana down to a skeletal group of just 27 people who can carry out emergency services.”
3. The Knife version: State Department officials said the expulsions were reciprocal measures intended to ensure that the U.S. and Cuban embassies would have “equitable staffing levels” while investigations continue into the unexplained “health attacks.”
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez called it an “unjustified decision”…
Compare to Reuters’ version: State Department officials said the expulsions were reciprocal measures – not punishment – intended to ensure that the U.S. and Cuban embassies would have “equitable staffing levels” while investigations continue into the unexplained “health attacks.”
But Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez denounced it as an “unjustified decision”…
Neither overt opinions nor the subtle spin words are a problem in themselves. In an analysis or editorial piece, they can emphasize the author’s point. The issue is when they are in articles labeled news – which ideally would stick to objectively reporting the facts of what happened.
Written by Analea Holland and Julia Berry López
Edited by Julia Berry López and Jens Erik Gould
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Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News