The media coverage we analyzed on Iran provided few specifics about the issues people are protesting about. That’s in part because news outlets made spin more important than data in their reporting.
There are different types of spin: there’s language that dramatizes, sensationalizes or leaves things open to interpretation, as well as language that’s imprecise or vague. Spin can easily drive our impression of news events, but at the expense of understanding them more concisely. In this case, providing data about the issues people are protesting about can bring attention to what needs solving, and help hold both the government and protesters accountable.
Of the four outlets we analyzed, The Washington Post’s and The New York Times’coverage was the most spun, earning a 71 and 66 percent spin rating, respectively (more spin yields a higher score). The Associated Press and BBC, by contrast, were the least spun with 28 and 46 percent ratings, respectively. Here are some examples (the spin is noted in red).
What’s the problem, exactly?
Iran’s economy has grown since the nuclear deal thanks to resumed oil exports — Iran is a major OPEC power — but growth outside the oil sector has sagged. (The Washington Post)The protests in Iran reportedly started because of public discontent with rising consumer prices and slow economic growth, among other issues. (For more on this, read our Raw Data.) In the Post’s description, “sagged” brings the idea across with no specifics. Compare the quote above to this data we compiled from a World Bank and an IMF report:
Iran’s oil-based growth rate increased from 1.3 percent in 2015 to 13.4 percent in 2016. Oil and gas production increased by 62 percent, mainly as a result of sanctions relief. Non-oil GDP contracted -2.7 percent in 2015 and grew 0.8 percent in 2016.
Leave it up to the imagination
The Iranian government responded with conciliatory words from Mr. Rouhani, but also a widening security clampdown — and a pledge late Monday to crack down even harder. (The New York Times)How does the spin here drive your imagination as to what may come? Compared to objectively defined terms such as “martial law,” language like “clampdown” or “crack down” implies a negative but loosely defined outcome.
We also didn’t find any of the Times’ language in Rouhani’s statements Sunday andMonday. Compare the Times’ version to Rouhani’s: “the government will definitely not tolerate any group that wants to destroy public property, disrupt the social order or create chaos in society” and “Our people will put an end to a small group who chant slogans against people’s will and against the law, insulting the values of the revolution and damaging public properties.”
The strength and volatility of the protests have caught Iranian politicians by surprise. (The New York Times) The protests have been stunning in their ferocity … (The Washington Post)These terms all sound pretty negative, but how exactly does one measure them? Also, did Iranian politicians say they were “caught by surprise” or is that the Times’ interpretation? Proper attribution is another line that spin can blur.
The protests … also suggest a rejiggering of some traditional divisions. (The New York Times)If you want specifics on the “traditional divisions” that might be “rejiggered,” and what this may mean, you won’t find it in the Times’ article. See where we’re going with this?
The use of spin in reporting has three immediate costs to readers, especially when it supplants data. First, the subjectivity and lack of precision make understanding what happened more difficult. Second, it distracts us from issues that may be important to bring awareness to. And third, it inspires us to grow accustomed to spin, which makes us more susceptible to sensationalism and misinformation. Should any of these be part of reading the news?
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