Swaying public opinion on NAFTA before negotiations have concluded | The Knife Media

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(The Knife Media) There are many possible outcomes for the NAFTA negotiations now underway in Washington, but why focus on just one?

The outlets we analyzed suggest this and only this: the agreement may come to an end, and if it does, it’ll be damaging to the economies involved. Terminating the agreement is entirely possible, and Trump has said it’s an option if negotiations don’t meet certain conditions he has. But the outlets don’t back this perspective with a lot of data, and they also don’t mention other outcomes that may be worth considering.

Here are three mechanisms these articles used to favor this impression.

1. Spin

Some of the terms used are dramatic and alarming, suggesting or stating that the agreement’s end is near. Here’s the spin (italic) in The New York Times’ lead sentence, for example.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, long a punching bag for President Trump, is edging closer toward collapse as negotiators gather for a fourth round of contentious talks here this week.

Notice how these terms help create a negative, worst-case-scenario impression without providing any data as to why. Some people think ending NAFTA would be good, but the choice of language here suggests it’s bad news, especially after reading the pact’s “demise is imminent” in the Times’ headline.

2. Slanted sources

The outlets biased the coverage by citing more sources who expressed concerns about the agreement ending, compared to those who suggested other outcomes are possible too. For instance, CNN includes 16 opinions that either indicate the agreement could end or that express concerns about these negotiations. Only one reference in the article offers an alternate perspective, which is that White House aides didn’t confirm the proposals that are reportedly cause for concern, adding that “negotiations are far from over.” When you weigh the two perspectives (16 to one), it may be harder to consider good things could come from these negotiations.

3. Missing data

The articles didn’t provide a lot of data to understand which parts of NAFTA are beneficial and which aren’t (and to whom), what specifically could change in these negotiations and, if those changes do happen, what the benefits and drawbacks would be. There’s also data missing from the opinions or concerns they cited. For instance, Reuters wrote:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday accused Trump’s administration of trying to sabotage the talks with “poison pill proposals”, including demands for more favorable treatment for the U.S. side on car production, and a “sunset clause” to force regular negotiations.

In its article, Reuters doesn’t explain what the COC leader meant by “poison pill proposals,” or why specifically a “more favorable treatment” of the U.S. automotive industry or a “sunset” clause would “sabotage” negotiations. So we walk away with a vague but negative impression, without really understanding why.

This is how spin, slanted sources and missing data all work together to support one main perspective that, in this case, isn’t a well-supported argument in terms of data. Again, maybe the deal will come to an end, but it’s premature to say given nothing’s happened yet.


Written by Tine Stausholm and Ivy Nevares

Edited by Ivy Nevares and Jens Erik Gould

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