Based on the articles we analyzed, it would seem that Zimbabwe is in a state of “chaos” and “crisis.” Some in the country may indeed feel that way, and we don’t intend to downplay recent events there. But herein lies part of the problem — it’s difficult to understand what is happening when the articles provide readers with few facts and use colorful, vague language instead.
Our Spin ratings demonstrated the prevalence of such language: for The Guardian, BBC, The New York Times and Fox News, these ratings were 75, 54, 47 and 43 percent, respectively (the higher the percentage, the more spun the article). Here are three examples:
1. The Guardian
“Zimbabwe’s ongoing crisis descended into outright chaos on Sunday …”In a nutshell, the news is that President Robert Mugabe’s governing party fired him as its leader and he was told if he didn’t step down by noon Monday (which he did not), his party would begin impeachment proceedings. Does that count as a “crisis” and “descend[ing] into outright chaos?” The language is so subjective it’s hard to tell.
“Zimbabwe’s embattled leader Robert Mugabe has vowed to stay in power for several weeks …”“Embattled” suggests Mugabe’s presidency has been marked by controversy and conflict, but the articles do little to elaborate on what actually took place. Luckily, our Context for Zimbabwe and Mugabe does.
3. The New York Times
Mugabe “ruled Zimbabwe with an iron grip …”“Iron grip” is vague and subjective and doesn’t provide facts about his presidency. Such information is mostly or completely missing from the coverage. If the coverage provided data instead of spin, readers could look at the facts and decide for themselves whether Mugabe ruled with an “iron grip”: He has led Zimbabwe for 37 years since he was elected in 1980 and was re-elected five times since then. He is also under U.S. and EU sanctions for alleged electoral fraud and human rights abuses.
Why do words like those highlighted above matter in the context of Zimbabwe? Increasing our understanding of other countries can help inform us about the world, gain new perspectives and learn from their successes and mistakes. However, words like “chaos,” “embattled” and “iron grip” can bias our perception of the facts (e.g. words like these may be associated with feelings of fear or anxiety), potentially interfering with rational, impartial knowledge of Zimbabwe and Mugabe, in this case.
Colorful language may be useful for attracting clicks and page views, but The Knife believes that data-based reporting is ideal for promoting evidence-based, rational views of the world around us.
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