It’s not surprising that U.S. media covered the IOC decision to ban Russia differently than Russian media did. The U.S. outlets we examined suggest the decision will damage Russia’s athletic and political influence on the world stage, while the Russian outlets had a different take. One implied Russia was the victim of a plot, while the other downplayed the government’s alleged culpability.
What might be most interesting is how the outlets achieve their bias. Their articles stick to the facts more than most stories we analyze, and their headlines are all fact-based. For this reason, they earned higher ratings than most articles (ranging from 61 to 79 percent Total Integrity).
Yet, while the articles all use the same set of facts (mainly, the details of the IOC ruling), they each have different slants. If you’re not looking too hard, you might not notice the subtle ways they do this, so let’s explore.
The U.S. outlets we looked at, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, dramatize the ruling against Russia. They suggest the ruling is significant because Russia’s absence will damage the country’s influence. This is an opinion and it deviates from neutral fact-based reporting.
Sensational descriptions: The U.S. publications promote this bias through sensational descriptions. For instance:
“The IOC is punishing one of its most prominent medal-winning powerhousesand stepping headfirst into political tensions between Russia and the West.” (The Wall Street Journal)
“That was the punishment issued Tuesday to the proud sports juggernaut that has long used the Olympics as a show of global force but was exposed for systematic doping in previously unfathomable ways.” (The New York Times)
These sentences are different than a data-based version of the news:
The IOC is suspending Russia from the games over a Russian governmental body’s alleged role in systemic “doping.” At the Sochi 2014 games, Russia won nine gold medals, five silver medals and eight bronze medals, according to the official results.
When you take the sensationalism out of the Times and Journal articles, you’re left with much less bias.
The state-owned and state-funded Russian publications we analyzed, TASSand RT, respectively, have a different take — either downplaying alleged Russian government involvement or making the IOC decision look unjust.
Missing data: At first glance, the TASS article might seem like our Raw Data. The article isn’t sensational and doesn’t include any opinions or conclusions about the situation. Yet, it glosses over the allegations against a Russian governmental agency, instead focusing on individual athletes. TASS’ only mention of possible government involvement is a single reference to “alleged involvement of state officials,” and it’s in the last sentence of the article. The outlet downplays the allegations against the Russian government by simply excluding this information. As a result, the decision doesn’t seem to reflect as badly on Russia.
Highlighting certain opinions: RT focuses on opinions that suggest the IOC ruling is the result of a plot against Russia. The outlet sticks to the data of the ruling until the second half of its article. Then it stresses that Russia “categorically” denies instructing its athletes to break rules, and cites opinions that paint Russia as the victim.
The outlet quotes the Kremlin calling the accusation “slander by a turncoat,” then refers to a video by a suspected World Anti-Doping Agency informant. In the video, the person says he doesn’t care about fighting doping, that he’ll “make sure” there’s at least “one positive sample of 20,000,” and that he “will destroy all Olympic sports of Russia for the next five years!” (These quotes aren’t cited in the U.S. publications.) Put this together and what do you get? The IOC ruling against Russia seems unjust.
What can we learn from this story? Often we can tell when a story feels biased, but if we can figure out exactly what causes this, it helps us separate the bias from the facts. Next time you read the news or hear a story, ask yourself: What data is included? What opinion and spin is included? And, what information is left out?
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