When you read that a “beacon of stability” in the Middle East (Lebanon) has been “plunged into a political crisis,” you might be alarmed, but does it give you a good sense of what’s happening there? The resignation of Saad Hariri was unexpected, and it may have negative consequences for the country, but the outlets we analyzed didn’t provide specific data as to why there may be political or economic risks, or possible conflict. Instead, they used spin terms (dramatic or vague language, noted below in italic) and they also left out data that could help better understand the situation. Here’s are two similar examples
[The resignation] also stirred widespread concerns about the dangers of conflict in Lebanon, which had become a surprise beacon of relative stability in the region throughout the turmoil of recent years. ( The Washington Post )
But with this stunning resignation, many Lebanese will now fear that their country is firmly in the crosshairs of the two regional superpowers. ( BBC )Here, the spin conveys that Hariri’s resignation may lead to internal and external conflict, but the outlets don’t specify what those conflicts could be. The outlets do include some information about the political and religious differences within Lebanon, and politicians’ alliances to opponents Saudi Arabia and Iran, but the rest is left to readers’ imaginations.
Al Jazeera’s coverage mostly consisted of experts who commented on the situation. For instance, a Lebanese political analyst said, “[The resignation] comes in light of imminent American sanctions against Lebanon, certain threats coming from Israel and escalation by the Saudis.” And the outlet leaves it at that. Unless you’re well versed in Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics, the vagueness of these terms conveys a problem, but without providing precise data.
Also in terms of missing data, some outlets include points others don’t. For example, the Post wrote that Israel “welcomed” Hariri’s decision, adding that the country “has been threatening in recent months to go to war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Al Jazeera didn’t include this, so its mention of “certain threats,” as noted above, is more difficult to grasp.
Similarly, CNN wrote that Hezbollah’s “political wing is the most powerful bloc in Lebanon’s coalition government”. While “most powerful” isn’t as precise as saying the percentage of positions Hezbollah holds in government, it still conveys the reported importance the group has. The other outlets didn’t include this information, however. So to have a more complete understanding of this story, you’d have to read more than one article, and probably research other sources.
The media doesn’t have a responsibility to play the role of an encyclopedia. But if the goal is to inform readers of an event, it’s best to include enough context to understand the situation, and preferably to report with data, as opposed to spin.
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