Politics and Democracy: Tips from Our Newsletter

Last Updated February 2024

The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on politics and democracy published in our weekly newsletter, Revisions. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.

 

Framing & Word Choice

January 6, 2022
What is the most accurate and fair way to describe the events of January 6, 2021?

Of the many words news organizations have used to describe that day — like “riot,” “revolt,” “mob,” “attack,” “violence,” etc. — one of the few that consistently describes the intent of the crowd at the Capitol is “insurrection.” While terms like “riot” or “attack on the Capitol” may not be inaccurate, they don’t tell the whole story of why there was such an attack: to disrupt or overthrow the government.

To that end, the actions of politicians and figures who planned or encouraged the insurrection in order to remain in power despite the will of the people can accurately be described as a “coup attempt.” As evidence has shown, one of the goals of the insurrection was to illegally keep President Trump in power despite the true results of the 2020 election, and that, plain and simple, is the definition of a coup. Just because it was unsuccessful does not mean we should obfuscate that goal for audiences.

 

January 27, 2022
How can reporting on book banning serve audiences best?

As with the debate over “critical race theory” in schools (which is continually used as a euphemism for teaching about race at all), news about book bans requires both the context of where they’re coming from and the subtext of what they’re really about. For instance, campaigns from conservative U.S. advocacy groups are often behind school book bans and the banning of a graphic novel about the Holocaust is about much more than the nudity of cartoon mice. It’s crucial that reporters help audiences understand the greater ramifications of trends that seek to erase the teaching of history from schools, rather than focus on disingenuous or superficial arguments for such decisions.

 

March 10, 2022
What does “culture war” mean? How can journalists use it accurately when reporting on topics of increased public debate?

“Culture war” is a phrase popularized by sociologist James Davison Hunter some 30 years ago to describe conflict over culture — our values, beliefs, and how we live — playing out in the political sphere. Issues recently given the “culture war” label by news media include laws that target parents of trans children for prosecution, barring LGBTQ and racial injustice education for children, abortion rights, and COVID-19 mitigation.

Defining these as issues of “culture” is misleading. Conflict over such issues is not debate for debate’s sake. Erasing racism and queer communities from our education system is a step toward erasing people of color and LGBTQ people from existence. Eliminating gender-affirming healthcare for kids is a step toward erasing trans adults. Barring access to abortion is a step toward controlling women’s bodies and lives. Banning measures that diffuse the effects of a deadly pandemic costs lives. These issues aren’t about “values” or “how we live,” they’re about who gets to live.

Lumping debates over whose life is worthy and free into the term “culture wars” dilutes the serious and often deadly consequences of whose “values” are enshrined into law. Journalists should avoid using this shorthand and apply the language of human rights and their violations when the issue is life and death for the “loser” of said war.

 

March 31, 2022
What is the controversy over using the term “gaffe” to describe remarks by newsworthy figures?

In March 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden made an unscripted remark at the end of a prepared speech (“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” re: Vladimir Putin) that many reporters later referred to as a “gaffe.” But, as Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop has since duly noted, gaffes by public figures are often unduly focused on by the press due to an insider-y obsession with proper messaging.

The definition of “gaffe” is a foolish or embarrassing mistake or blunder. The label is often applied quite unevenly by the media depending on the public figure. Despite a plethora of outrageous remarks that left his mouth while in office and since, Donald Trump’s biggest “gaffes” were usually framed as normal or honest comments by the former president. Is that because such remarks hardly embarrassed Trump and often even resulted in buoyed support from his biggest fans? Perhaps.

Regardless, the use of the term relies on assumptions about the political implications and intent of a statement, rather than the content of the statement itself. If a mistake is of true consequence, it would not be simply a “gaffe” at all. And if it is just a “gaffe,” perhaps it doesn’t require as much attention as political reporters think.

 

June 9, 2022

Some recent legislative decisions on issues important to the U.S. population have gone against what polling says the majority actually want (think: gun controldomestic terrorism, and abortion). If journalism is to serve as the pillar of democracy it believes itself to be, it should frame this progression as anti-democratic. Below are a few examples of polling and opinion research that could be cited in reporting on relevant legislation.

 

September 1, 2022

Last week President Biden accused the GOP of “semi-fascism” and said some “MAGA Republicans” “embrace political violence.” The statements stirred quite a conversation around the use of “semi-fascism,” which has no real agreed upon definition. But fascism itself certainly has an established one that includes autocratic government, dictatorial leadership, and suppression of opposition.

Regardless of one’s opinion on Biden’s choice of words, it opens an important conversation on how to discuss openly anti-democratic political candidates. Some Republicans holding or running for office continue to deny election results and use coded language to telegraph that Democratic wins are inherently illegitimate. Many members of the GOP still bow to former president Trump despite his embrace of political violence and investigations into his handling of classified documents. In the case of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, suppression of opposition is out in the open.

Labels are only so helpful, especially in the news. But this behavior cannot accurately be described as “conservative,” “right-wing,” “controversial,” “populist,” or “unconventional.” It is anti-democratic. And the news media needs to describe it as such and with urgency to U.S. voters.

 

September 8, 2022

“Prebunk” election denialism for your audience.

“Prebunking,” a riff on debunking, means proactively explaining media manipulation techniques for audiences so they can recognize them in the wild. A new study shows this strategy is very effective in “inoculating” folks against misinformation. In addition to providing ample fact-checks on candidates, this “prebunking” method is a tool newsrooms should add to their midterm election plans.

What should you be “prebunking”? Election denialism is a good place to start. FiveThirtyEight recently reported that more than half of Americans will have an election denier on the ballot this fall. We can easily predict based on previous elections that losers of races will call the winners (and even the entire electoral system) into question. This will happen at local and national levels. In fact, some candidates are already laying the groundwork for 2024.

Start a “prebunk” for your audience right now and publish it before the midterms. Make sure it’s prominently displayed past its publication date. Explain how your local voting system and elections work and highlight true voter fraud cases or lack thereof. Explore the hypocrisy of elected officials calling into question the same system that got them elected. This can help “vaccinate” your audience against the coming wave of election denialism.

 

October 20, 2022

In October we’ll publish an updated elections language guide to our Knowledge Hub. Here’s a sneak peek of two new entries you’ll find there.

Anti-democratic
This is the appropriate adjectival form to describe an action or event that is in opposition to democracy. However, it does bring to mind the democratic process rather than the institution of democracy — as in, against the spirit of democratic elections versus against the idea of democracy as a form of government. It also might be read as “big D” Democrat. In some cases, then, “anti-democracy” may be more appropriate and to the point.

Election denialism/deniers
Like climate denial, this is a misnomer for those who have access to information that supports one view but continue to support the opposing view instead for their own gain. We may not be able to certify the intent of those “denying” the results of an election, but we don’t have to ascribe intent in order to describe impact.

Where forms of “deny” imply that someone believes something to be untrue, the word “oppose” doesn’t try to ascertain beliefs and describes the impact of their statements instead. This and similar substitutions can work in the following ways:

  • election deniers ⇒ people opposing election results
  • election denialism ⇒ opposition to valid election results
  • denies results without evidence ⇒ opposes results against existing evidence
  • refuse to accept the results ⇒ intend to oppose valid election results
  • casting doubt on results ⇒ seeking to convince others to oppose results

 

December 1, 2022

Powerful protests took place in China in November in response to COVID-19 restrictions. In their newsletter Far & Near, journalists Yan Cong, Beimeng Fu, and Ye Charlotte Ming have published guidelines for photojournalists covering the protests.

This isn’t the first time a debate has been stirred among journalists covering protests. If protests take place in public, some ask, aren’t demonstrators taking on the risk of news coverage? But as the authors write, “It is one thing to participate, faces bare, in a crowd, and another to be featured in mainstream international media as faces of ‘defiance’ next to headlines about ‘challenging Xi.’”

Among their full guidance (which I highly recommend reading) they suggest:

  • “Avoid photographing demonstrators who can be easily identified. Be creative with framing and camera angles to photograph faces that are partially covered by their hands, masks, objects, or others in the crowd, or employ wide shots in which faces are hard to identify. One exception is when capturing an arrest, which might help to put pressure on authorities for release.
  • If you do end up having to publish a photo with uncovered faces, obtain explicit consent from the individuals, and be ready to explain to them where these photos might end up.”

 

January 12, 2023

New research coming to Journalism Studies from former journalist Jessica F. Sparks has found a major difference between partisan and nonpartisan outlets:

“Media outlets with extreme biases — regardless of whether it was a conservative or liberal bias — tended to use shorter sentences and less formal language than nonpartisan outlets.”

The origins and impacts of this difference are unclear. But the researchers recommend journalists improve the readability of their work — it may just attract audiences used to extreme coverage. To do so, journalists might explore the technique of “plain language.” It’s just what it sounds like: words and sentence structures that make for the easiest and most efficient user comprehension. It’s used by everyone from universal design advocates to government agencies to ensure their communications are understood by as many folks as possible. Try it out using these resources:

 

July 6, 2023

WNYC’s radio show On the Media released a new guide to reporting on political candidates who regularly spout conspiracies and lies, below. This is a great print-out-and-tape-up kind of guide.

Must-Reads

A Better Way to Tell Protest Stories
Danielle K. Brown and Summer Harlow, Center for Media Engagement
We’re big fans of the Center for Media Engagement and the research of Danielle K. Brown and Summer Harlow (whose work heavily influenced our study of Philadelphia protest coverage, by the way). So when we saw them all team up, we knew we’d learn a ton from their research on humanizing and legitimizing protest coverage of underrepresented groups. You will too.

The press will either save American democracy…or doom it
Parker Malloy, Nieman Lab
Each year Nieman Lab rounds up predictions for journalism from industry thought leaders and in 2021 we found Malloy’s (formerly of Media Matters for America and now writing newsletter The Present Age) to be the most urgent. Their discussion of how the news media’s decisions in the very near future will impact U.S. democracy is neither overstatement nor being taken seriously enough, in our opinion. Other prediction honorable mentions go to Anita Varma and j. Siguru Wahutu.

How does this end?
Zach Beauchamp, Vox
If you are looking to get a sense of the many futures possible for American democracy (the good, the bad, and the ugly) after the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, you’re in luck. Beauchamp asked several experts on polarization and civil conflict what they see in the tea leaves, and it makes an unfortunately necessary read for anyone invested in U.S. democracy.

Joe Rogan, Spotify, and the difference between speech and association
Jon Allsop, Columbia Journalism Review
At the end of January 2022, Neil Young demanded Spotify remove his music from their platform in protest of the media company paying Joe Rogan for his podcast, which is often the vector of misinformation. Allsop’s take on it explains why the tiff was much more than a celebrity squabble.

Opinion: The media still haven’t learned how to cover the GOP threat to democracy
Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post
Rubin offers a damning critique of the mainstream press’s current coverage of the Republican party’s active attack on U.S. democracy. But she also offers six ways that coverage could and should be improved, ASAP.

The Supreme Court tears a new hole in the wall separating church and state
Ian Millhiser, Vox
With much of the focus on Supreme Court decisions falling on the fate of Roe v. Wade, I wanted to amplify another important decision that came down in summer 2022 that didn’t received as much attention. Vox has explained just how influential this week’s Carson v. Makin decision is for the foundation of U.S. democracy. It’s a quick but useful read.

‘A mockery of democracy’: US supreme court in question after abortion ruling
David Smith, The Guardian
The Supreme Court’s recent rulings will have immeasurable impacts on pregnant people, the livability of our planet, people who don’t want to be killed by guns, and much more. But altogether they symbolize something bigger: institutions of U.S. democracy imposing laws against the will of the people. For instance, despite our laws, recent polls show Americans want to control gun violence and broadly want gun control laws. A recent study has shown that SCOTUS is more conservative than 75% of Americans. And Republicans want SCOTUS to give state legislatures the power to ignore voters and pick the president. In this article, the Guardian explores how these events call the court’s legitimacy into question.

Make Nice, or Screw Them?
Doron Taussig and Anthony Nadler, Columbia Journalism Review
This nuanced, thoughtful essay seeks “a new approach to journalism’s conservative problem.” It describes the two main approaches the industry has taken so far: futilely capitulate to fact-phobic audiences that will never trust you or write off conservative audiences completely. Then it suggests a new tactic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what they propose. Simply reply to this email to drop a line!

Hate in the Headlines: Journalism & the Challenge of Extremism.
James Tager and Summer Lopez, PEN America
The hefty report from PEN America is not quite a holiday read, I’ll admit. But it’s an incredibly well-formulated exploration of the tension between traditional journalism and the communication strategies of extremist groups. It will help anyone struggling with this understand where the framing of coverage plays a role. It’s a must-read resource for anyone reporting on democracy, politics, the “culture wars,” racism and antisemitism, and gun violence. If that’s you, put some time on your calendar to dig in.

You Cannot Put a Human Being to a Vote
Jude Ellison S. Doyle, Medium
The way reporting on anti-trans legislation is framed sometimes, outsiders might think that voting on whether certain groups deserve to exist is acceptable democratic activity in the U.S.! Writer Jude Ellison S. Doyle’s latest column explains just how coverage of policy votes and polling is normalizing a “debate” over human rights. Key quote: “People are not poll data, and human rights are not awarded via popularity contest.”

Boots on the Ground
Zoya Teirstein, The Grist
In partnership with HuffPost, the Grist has published a startling story about how extremist groups are taking advantage of climate disasters to stoke anti-government sentiment. While they assist with rescue and clean-up, groups like the Oath Keepers are recruiting.

The Right’s Campus Culture War Machine
Claire Potter, The New Republic
This deep-dive from The New Republic explores how right-wing media takes advantage of a network of national student organizations to turn small, on-campus squabbles into primetime controversies. Understanding how this propaganda machine works is a must for journalists working anywhere near the political beat.

The Mass Disappointment of a Decade of Mass Protest
Osita Nwanevu, The New Republic
Journalist Vincent Bevins has released a new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution. In turn, The New Republic has examined his core premise: what happened to the promise of the Arab Spring and other social media-supported uprisings? This report gives a quick look at the fascinating lessons Bevins learned in reporting on global movements.

Inside an Election Denial Facebook Group on Primary Day
David Gilbert, WIRED
From reading the headline, you may be thinking this WIRED story is a bit of voyeurism covered in schadenfreude. And yes, it is full of examples of Facebook users believing in or spreading conspiratorial misinformation, often with no more proof than each others’ musings. But what’s most interesting (and thus troubling) to me about this type of group is the epistemological question it raises: What do we do, as a society, when people no longer seek, want, or need proof to support their beliefs about our shared reality? Can we even establish a collective truth?

Schemas and the Political Brain
Brian Klaas, Forking Paths
This essay from Brian Klaas is a brilliant explanation of how human brains use schema (or, “patterns of thought that provide intellectual shortcuts for processing the information we encounter in our lives”) daily — and what that means for our politics. It will help you understand how taglines like “defund the police” and red herrings like gas stoves and Taylor Swift become part of the political discourse.

How the Far Right Took Over a Pennsylvania School Board—And How Parents Took It Back
Kathryn Joyce, Vanity Fair
Vanity Fair took a deep dive into the Pennridge School District’s recent rollercoaster and specifically highlighted how its lessons can be applied to similar situations across the U.S. Anyone reporting on education should become familiar with the cast of characters at the center of this story.

 

Critical Voices

I used to only read history. Now I’m mostly reading on fascism and authoritarianism and how how democracies fail. If you’re a journalist in these times and not doing the same, I’m wondering why.

Reporter and 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones offers important advice for journalists re: January 6, 2021 and the U.S. elections. In a follow-up tweet, she suggests starting with How Democracies Die and How Fascism Works. Another good read might be Mother Jones’ “What if Media Covered the War on Democracy Like an Actual War?”

In any other country, bills of the sort we are seeing mandating a positive image of the country’s history in schools would be immediately recognized as authoritarian in character and a red alarm danger sign. The US media has to treat what is happening here with more seriousness.

Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley is referring to bills which made the rounds in U.S. state legislatures in early 2022. One such bill about “teacher’s loyalty,” proposed in New Hampshire, looked to ban teachers from advancing any “theory” or “doctrine” which promotes a “negative” account of U.S. history. If the dangers of such a political movement aren’t clear, we suggest checking out Stanley’s recent essay on America being in “fascism’s legal phase.”

NYT: racial overtone CNN: racial undertone Politico: racially charged WaPo: racially tinged

Reporter Christopher Ingraham helpfully gathered some examples of evasive language from major media orgs regarding the tenor of the GOP’s questioning of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearings. Let’s tease out the hypothetical decision-making here. If the parts of these hearings in question were overtly about race more broadly, the newsrooms would not use phrases like “racially tinged” as they’d be justified in directly referring to them as “about race” or some such. So they clearly mean something else.

What they mean is some of those questioning Jackson did so in a way that was clearly antagonistic toward Jackson because of her race. That’s quite literally the definition of racism. So, why not use “racist” instead?

Some excuses you might hear in a newsroom are that it’s a “strong word” or even that it describes a kind of intent that journalists can’t know. But if your newsroom policy relies on someone admitting they are being racist before calling their actions racist, you’ll be waiting a long time — while denying what everyone else can see with their own eyes. For the record, even the Associated Press Stylebook advises against such euphemisms.

If you’re not careful, the media will have you angry at how folks respond when our rights are stolen, instead of the folks who are stealing them.

In May 2022, protesters demonstrated outside of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s home and wrote with chalk outside of Senator Susan Collins’ home to voice their opposition to the leaked draft of an opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Some media reports and politicians’ statements on the protests have exaggerated what have been peaceful events led by people well within their rights to do so.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis’s reminder of perspective is a lesson to be learned by news producers. When framing stories on protest, the issues at the heart of any demonstration — who they impact, what that impact looks like, and who’s wielding power — should be at the forefront. Undue focus on complaints over peaceful protest suck oxygen from the more important story at hand and prioritize the voices of those in power.

I’m including a rare thread here because each word from civil rights lawyer and Ford Foundation fellow Sherrilyn Ifill deserves attention. There are of course many angles to any story like the search of a former president’s home. But newsrooms must be careful to make the most important angles the most salient to audiences.

What positively bizarre framing in NYT lead headline of a critical moment in recent US politics & law enforcement. A ‘feud’? Between the people required to collect & preserve vital US records. And the man defying those laws? When cops stop *you* on suspicion, is it a ‘feud’?

Journalist Charles Fishman pointed out this odd headline on a New York Times story about the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Calling this a “feud” implies that the FBI’s actions were politically motivated, rather than based on the National Archives’ suspicions of wrongdoing. That one word does a lot of editorializing here.

Ever notice that whenever someone's going to try to push things way too the right that they try to brand it as embracing "neutrality" or being "nonpartisan"? says media critic Parker Molloy in response to an interview with Politico's new owner, who has a "contrarian" "nonpartisan" plan for American media.

Media critic Parker Molloy raises a critical point about media owners who seek to “balance” their coverage, from recent CNN shakeups to this new plan for the already right-leaning Politico. Balance, neutrality, and nonpartisanship are often code for appeasing (and thus gaining the eyes and money of) right wing audiences who complain about any coverage that strays from their reality-bending views.

Wait! A man influenced by lies made by members of the Republican Party attempted to assassinate the Speaker of the House. By luck, she wasn’t home, so he instead beat her husband in the head with a hammer. But Twitter and horse race bullshit are bigger stories?

Reporter Danielle McLean of Smart Cities Dive is responding to a post from media critic and CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis comparing October 2022 homepages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. The morning after the October attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, neither had the story “above the fold” on their websites. McLean and Jarvis make the same point: the attempted attack on Pelosi received alarmingly tame coverage considering her position as third in line for the presidency and the alleged motive of the suspect. It’s hard to understate how troubling the normalization of political violence is across the spectrum.

All about who’s winning the sport of politics, nothing about what voters need from their government. This isn’t even news. Not only do presidents regularly issue wish-list budgets, it’s the opening stage in a routine (and important?) public policy debate, not “picking a fight.”

This tweet from NBC journalist Rich Bellis does a great job of breaking down why the New York Times headline in question does readers a disservice. It reminds me of the shorthand media scholar and educator Jay Rosen has been sharing ahead of the 2024 elections: “Not the odds but the stakes.” Journalists should focus less on how well politicians are playing the “game” and more on what the wins and losses mean for U.S. residents’ lives.

Any political reporter using won/lost language instead of "here's how new policy will impact people's lives" is not helping you better understand the world, or politics, or indeed who won or lost.

As you’re reading about the June 2023 debt ceiling bill, remember these words from journalist David M. Perry. The deal included much more than just the debt ceiling limit and those other policies are what people need to know about. As educator and media critic Jay Rosen has been saying, “Not the odds, but the stakes.”

Oh, I think there might be some precedents" written above a New York TImes headline reading "In a first, Germany's far right will take control of a district."

Yes, professor Ben Stanley’s quip above about this Times headline is a bit of wry humor. But any framing of Germany’s current political situation that doesn’t acknowledge the impact of Nazi rule is dangerously ahistorical. A primary responsibility of journalism is contextualizing current events so they can be understood against the backdrop of history. All news organizations could use a reminder of this when confronting movements of extremist parties.

“We need to be able to hold both. We need to recognize that anti-colonial struggles are violent. But not all of that violence is in pursuit of a political project. As you say, violence occurs for all different sorts of reasons. We need to be able to hold that truth while also recognizing the ethical purpose of ending apartheid. And I think it’s really hard to do that when the media tries to portray this in black and white. It’s very complex, and we need to be able to hold that complexity.”

— Tareq Baconi, the president of the board of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network

This quote is from a recent interview with Baconi in The New Yorker called “Where the Palestinian Political Project Goes from Here”. I recommend reading the full interview, but I think this excerpt gets at a particular tension in the current public discourse: it is challenging to hold multiple dissonant truths in our heads at once without falling into simplistic “whataboutism” and “both sides” arguments.

After all, our media systems are not built for such complexity. In fact, even as major social networks step back from news, they’re still designed to amplify content that engages our emotions. That’s important to keep in mind during times of heightened conflict.

“It was great to see the digging that went into that Washington Post story about Trump and his allies plotting a post-election power grab. But it was all too telling to see this wording in its subhead: ‘Critics have called the ideas under consideration dangerous and unconstitutional.’

So others think it’s fine, right? That suggests that both sides have a valid point of view on whether democracy matters.”

— Margaret Sullivan, The Guardian

Former Washington Post media critic and current Guardian columnist Margaret Sullivan does an excellent job explaining the problem with over-attribution in a recent column. When journalists feel they must rely on the quotes of “critics” or “experts” to back up what can be empirically observed, they turn facts into opinions. This is one of the many ways the news media helps malicious actors establish a false reality where everything is up for debate and no one can agree on the facts.

NEW STUDY: Broadcast, cable, and print outlets have given Donald Trump calling his enemies "vermin" a tiny fraction of the coverage they gave Hillary Clinton's 2016 remark calling some Trump supporters "deplorables"

Coverage decisions like these provide insight into which stories the editors, producers, and reporters at major news outlets are prioritizing and shape the political landscape during presidential election cycles.

Matthew Gertz of progressive media watchdog Media Matters recently posted on Bluesky about their latest study on coverage of U.S. presidential candidates. The full study is available on their site, but the gist is that coverage of Donald Trump’s recent speech in which he called his enemies “vermin” got a small fraction of the coverage allotted to Hillary Clinton’s infamous “deplorables” comment from 2016.

As discussed in my last newsletter, the “vermin” quote was particularly egregious because of its alignment with fascist propaganda of yore. As Gertz suggests, this drastic difference in attention is particularly concerning considering what it reveals about editorial priorities during this election cycle.

Reframing Headlines

October 28, 2021

Sigh. Considering the exceptional political polarization of U.S. society and the slate of broadly popular legislation that has hit the cutting room floor in recent years, perhaps we can all agree something is up with U.S. democracy. But, to put that at the feet of the Democratic party alone, as this Rolling Stone headline above does, despite acknowledging in its opening ‘graph that Republicans are seeking to curtail voting rights and overturn fair elections (those critical pillars of said democracy), is disingenuous and inaccurate. Sure, headlines aren’t the best place for nuanced political commentary, but in this case the answer for reframing this headline is found in a meme: Why not both?

 

December 16, 2021
Jim Jordan sent one of the texts revealed by January 6 committee

In December 2021 a U.S. House select committee investigating the events of January 6, 2021 revealed a number of text messages sent to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows by lawmakers and journalists. Some of the texts are from panicked people stationed within the Capitol while the deadly riot unfolded urging the then-president’s team to end the violence. Others, including one from Ohio congressman Jim Jordan, are from Trump allies suggesting ways he might illegally seize power. Of course, a U.S. lawmaker seeking to keep a president in power against the will of the people is extremely newsworthy and demands public attention.

Vague headlines like the one above, from CNN, however, don’t help audiences jump into this complex story. By leaving out details (who is Jordan again? what texts are we talking about? what did it say?) this headline makes big assumptions about its audience’s knowledge of a story that unfolded over many days during the busiest time of year. It would be perfectly understandable for many Americans to have missed this story completely. And without key details, this headline displays no sense of urgency to the public. Contrast it with the one below, from CNBC; crucial contextual elements help audiences get up to speed on this important story before they even get to the article.Trump ally Jim Jordan forwarded Mark Meadows argument for Mike Pence to reject Biden electoral votes

 

January 20, 2022

In late January 2022, the U.S. Senate failed to advance legislation to expand voting access and a change to Senate rules that would allow the legislation to pass failed by a 52-48 margin. All of the Republicans in the Senate, as well as two Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, made this happen. As with any big news event, it’s critical that reporting on this centers both those responsible for the action in question and who those actions will impact.

Senate Democrats suffer defeat on voting rights after vote to change rules fails

The headline above, from CNN, focuses the story on Democrats’ “defeat.” This plays into the politics-as-spectator-sport framing of legislation that erases the very real people who are impacted by the actions of Congress as if it’s all just a game. (Were Democrats defeated, or were voting rights for the entire country defeated?) It also obscures the Republican party’s prominent role in the outcome of last night’s debate by assigning no actor to the failed vote.Senate Republicans block voting rights bills, join with two Democrats to prevent filibuster change

By contrast, the above headline from CNBC, properly positions the actor and the act: Republicans blocked the voting rights bills alongside Sinema and Manchin. While it’s certainly relevant that two Democrats also blocked these bills, the emphasis should be on Senate Republicans. The press often takes for granted that all legislation should split along party lines and thus focuses on outliers who cross the aisle. In reality, any of the 50 Senate Republicans could have chosen to alter Senate rules to expand voting rights and chose not to, and in news coverage those 50 should receive as much responsibility for this outcome as Sinema and Manchin.

 

February 3, 2022

The New York Times reported that, after the 2020 election, Donald Trump asked his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, “to ask the Department of Homeland Security if it could legally take control of voting machines in key swing states.” That, apparently, was after asking the Attorney General if the Justice Department could do it.

So it sounds like the former president had quite a specific, prominent role in the attempt to seize voting machines: asking those on his team to do something completely unprecedented in U.S. democracy. It’s curious that the Times would describe it so vaguely in their headline, above. We always prefer precision here, making the Guardian’s reporting on the Times’ discovery, below, a better option.

 

March 24, 2022

A hearing for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee — which literally has two partisan sides and entails a lot of one-on-one conversation — can quite easily be framed by headlines as a head-to-head battle. That makes any bias pretty clear when comparing different framings side by side. That the hearing in question below was of Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is the first Black woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice, makes it even more important to get right.Cruz presses Jackson on critical race theory in tense questioning

The headline above, from The Hill, describes Sen. Ted Cruz’s part in the hearing. The word “presses” connotes seeking hidden information, like an interrogator might, implying Jackson has something to hide. Emphasizing “critical race theory” (without quotes) implies it was a legitimate thing for Cruz to be asking about — with CRT being a legal framework to begin with that might have been the case if not for the bastardization of the phrase we’ve described elsewhere. And finally calling the whole endeavor “tense,” a vague assessment of the environs, puts culpability for that tension on both Cruz’s and Jackson’s shoulders.Ketanji Brown Jackson faces renewed Republican attacks in Senate grilling

In reality, any tension or agitation during the hearings was the fault of the GOP who, by many accounts, raised the temperature in the room while Jackson remained calm and patientThe Guardian headline above frames those events in a much more straight-forward and honest way. This construction places Jackson squarely as the recipient of the “attacks” perpetuated by Senate Republicans without equivocating.

 

March 31, 2022

What makes a good headline? Context, context, context.

Jan. 6 White House logs given to House show 7-hour gap in Trump calls

The above headline, from the Washington Post, is accurate. But why does it matter that the call logs are missing? The average person reading this may not realize (or it might just not come to mind) that White House call logs are supposed to be complete and turned over to the National Archives for the public’s knowledge of what our president is doing and to whom they speak. Some audience members aren’t old enough to remember the scandal that 18 minutes of missing audio recordings caused for President Nixon, an incident folks like Bob Woodward were quick to note in comparison. The significance may seem obvious to reporters and political obsessives, but our job as journalists is not to assume knowledge on behalf of our audiences.

The headline below, from the New York Times, is better because it quickly provides context and meaning. The gap in call logs — what we don’t know — matters because of what we do know: that on January 6, 2021 Trump was seeking help from Republican lawmakers to overturn the rightful election results while his supporters overtook the Capitol. Thus, a gap this large is rightfully concerning to those investigating any wrongdoing on behalf of the Trump administration. Connecting the dots this easily in a headline does a great service to busy audiences.

Call Logs Underscore Trump’s Efforts to Sway Lawmakers on Jan. 6

 

April 21, 2022

The headlines below refer to the bill signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in March 2022 which, as the Washington Post reports,:

“…[bans] instruction or classroom discussion of ‘sexual orientation or gender identity’ for kindergartners through third graders in public schools. It also empowers parents to sue school districts over teachings they don’t like, and requires schools to tell parents when their child receives mental health services.”

After the bill passed, the Walt Disney Co. released a statement condemning the bill and asking for it to be repealed. Both of the headlines below frame these events very differently.

In Disney's feud with Florida Gov. DeSantis, echoes of a culture war that never died

The headline above, from a Los Angeles Times story syndicated by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, combines two harmful tropes of political coverage. First, it uses the word “feud” to describe a very uneven conflict. As MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan and NYU’s Jay Rosen have discussed on Twitter, calling this a “feud” creates a false equivalence between Disney and DeSantis’ actions. DeSantis and his party have led a bad-faith campaign accusing the company of being “groomers” who support child abuse and made moves to remove the company’s self-governing status in the state. Disney, on the other hand, put out a late, three-sentence statement. These actions are not proportional.

Second, the use of the term “culture war” to vaguely refer to the long fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community is delegitimizing. As we’ve written above, “Lumping debates over whose life is worthy and free into the term ‘culture wars’ dilutes the serious and often deadly consequences of whose ‘values’ are enshrined into law.”

RON DESANTIS IS THREATENING DISNEY WITH REGULATIONS BECAUSE IT SPOKE OUT AGAINST FLORIDA'S ANTI-LBGTQ LAW

The headline above, from Vanity Fair, gets it right. It calls DeSantis’s actions “threatening” and refers to Disney’s actions as “spoke out.” These terms accurately describe those actions without implying they are of equal weight. The headline also refers to the bill as “Anti-LGBTQ,” putting the true goal of the bill in harsh relief rather than referring it to as a “culture war.”

 

July 14, 2022

During the July 2022 House select committee public hearings on the events of January 6, 2021, important details about a December 2021 meeting held at the White House were revealed. Ten Republican members of Congress and then-Representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene met to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Logs show 10 House Republicans attended White House meeting on pressuring Pence

I’ll give the headline above from Axios credit for citing the primary source of this information (White House visitor logs). But it leaves out the most important part of this news: What were the Republicans pressuring Pence to do?

The headline below, from Insider, may be way longer than most newsrooms would allow, but it does cover all the critical details: what the meeting was about and that the president was there. It also adds that crucial fact that six of those in attendance later asked for pardons, implying that they feared what they were doing put them at risk of prosecution. The bottom line: who attended a meeting is important to audiences but only if they know what the meeting was about.
11 House Republicans attended a White House meeting with Trump to strategize about overturning the election results on January 6. Six of them later asked for pardons.

 

August 11, 2022

The Washington Post published the headline below atop its story on the political implications of the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. It was immediately and harshly judged by media scholars on Twitter for doing the politicizing it accuses of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Garland vowed to depoliticize Justice. Then the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago.

The implication of this headline structure is that, if vowing to depoliticize “Justice” came before this search, then the search marks the politicization of it. That suggests that the FBI’s search was not driven by a compelling legal reason, like evidence of a crime, but instead by retaliation against a political rival.

We know little about the search so far. But, considering the measured history of Garland’s approach, the fact that a federal judge signed off on the warrant, and the unprecedented nature of the search, it is likely safe to say the argument for it was compelling.

Regardless of the facts, however, supporters of Trump (including much of the GOP) will likely declare this a “witch hunt” driven by electoral politics. (In fact, violent rhetoric has already begun to spread on the right.) This is the “political firestorm” the second version of this WaPo headline below, updated later the same day, refers to.

FBI's search of Mar-a-Lago lands Merrick Garland in a political firestorm

This updated version accurately describes the heat Garland will face due to the right’s determination that the search is politically driven — instead of implying he is in fact politicizing his role.

 

August 25, 2022

I typically avoid using examples from Fox News in this space. That’s largely because I agree with media scholar Dan Froomkin that what the channel produces is not accurately described as news but is instead propaganda. It’s also because the juxtaposition such an example would create is often laughably transparent in its partisanship. Today I feel the comparison is worth making.Biden announces student loan handout as national debt soars

In August the Biden administration announced its long-awaited student debt plan. The Fox headline above makes no attempt to hide its opinion on the facts of the news. It refers to student loan forgiveness as a “handout,” a term long used to pejoratively describe public assistance. It also chooses to place the announcement against the backdrop of “as national debt soars. ” (This explainer from Quartz shows why the national debt is used as a scare tactic to avoid public spending, if you’re curious.) Fox could have easily chosen to end the headline with “as student debt soars” but that would paint the announcement in a positive light, which is not the goal here.

Biden to cancel up to $10,000 in student debt for most borrowers and $20,000 for Pell recipients

In contrast, the Washington Post’s headline tells it straight: what’s happening (loan cancellations) how it’s happening (who gets what money) and who’s doing it (Biden). No naked partisan slant to be found.

 

November 17, 2022
With midterm losses, Trump's climb to the nomination could be steeper than he'd like

On Tuesday, former U.S. president Donald Trump announced he would run for president again in 2024. In the headline above, NPR chose to contextualize this news within the recent midterm election results. But is the challenge Trump may or may not face in becoming the GOP’s nominee the most important part of his potential candidacy?

Trump, who as president fomented an insurrection, says he is running again

The Washington Post (above) and NBC News (below) certainly didn’t think so. They both, in slightly different ways, told audiences what was most important about Trump: he tried to overturn the 2020 election in his own favor. Of all the things a newsroom could choose to include about Trump in a headline, this piece is significant. By emphasizing his attempt at insurrection, these headlines implicitly make an argument that his candidacy is at the very least unusual, if not dangerous for democracy.

Trump, whose lies about the 2020 election inspired an insurrection, announces third White House bid

Oddly enough, though the NPR headline soft-pedals the announcement, a tweet of this story from the newsroom went even further than the examples above. Regardless, it’s refreshing to see newsrooms refusing to normalize Trump’s attempts at subverting the will of the people and keeping it top of mind for readers. For more examples of how different newsrooms handled this aspect of Trump’s announcement, check out Media Matters’ analysis.

 

December 22, 2022

A report from the U.S. House ways and means committee revealed in December that the IRS did not audit President Trump’s taxes during his first two years in office. The IRS has a mandate to audit the president’s taxes each year.

IRS failed to conduct timely mandatory audits of Trump’s taxes while president

I see two problems with how the headline above, from the Guardian, frames this news. First, the passive use of “failed” denotes something going wrong, as when a machine misfires or someone is unsuccessful at a task. However, reports make it appear that the IRS didn’t try to audit Trump and fail. Rather, they didn’t take up the task until they were asked for the audits by the ways and means committee in 2017. “Failed” implies some attempt at success. The news here is that, for whatever reason, the IRS didn’t attempt their mandatory task until prompted.

The second problem I see is the inclusion of the word “timely,” which makes it appear as though the core issue here is the IRS’s time management. Again, the key takeaway from this story is that people at the IRS chose not to conduct their mandatory work. The speed at which they eventually did the auditing is less important than the fact that they didn’t do it until prompted despite a requirement. These two small words, “failed” and “timely,” effectively soften the impact of the news of this wrongdoing.

Records show IRS ignored rule, delayed audit of Trump’s finances

The headline from MSNBC, above, on the other hand uses active verbs like “ignored” and “delayed.” These words emphasize that the lack of an audit was the result of choices made by the IRS, underlining their agency in these events. I love to see action words that attribute credit where credit is due.

 

January 19, 2023

President Biden’s lawyers recently found and subsequently turned over classified documents found in two unapproved places. The mishandling of classified documents, of course, rings a few bells considering former president Trump’s recent refusal to hand over government documents after his presidency.

The headline below, from NPR, is a perfect example of false equivalence by omission. Yes, special counsel have been assigned to investigate both Biden’s and Trump’s handling of these documents, that’s true. But that action is in response to similar incidents that are of very unequal magnitude. Emphasizing this framing, that “Biden joins Trump” in this experience, is painting both with the same brush.

Biden joins Trump under scrutiny of special counsel investigating classified documents

The headline from U.S. News below, on the other hand, gets straight to the point. While there are similarities between what can both be called “document dramas,” there are also “dramatic differences.”

The handling and mishandling of government documents by presidents and vice presidents is obviously newsworthy. But it’s just as obvious that these particular cases are very different and should not be falsely equated just because these two sit on opposite sides of the aisle. That would be egregious “bothsidesism.”

The Dramatic Differences Between the Trump and Biden Document Dramas

For a good read on this, check out a recent Q&A with media critic Margaret Sullivan.

 

February 2, 2023

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a legislative plan Tuesday that, if taken up wholesale, will have a huge impact on the state’s higher education system. DeSantis, who is expected to run for president in 2024, wants to ban state colleges from hosting programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory. (Reminder: CRT has gone from a term describing a legal theory not actually taught in U.S. grade schools to a euphemism for American history that acknowledges racism and slavery.)

This sounds very much like the desire for a memory hole where the country’s long history of racism and white supremacy is “disappeared” for the benefit of the white and powerful. The rewriting of history for political gain, banning education that would weaken white supremacy, suppression of the opposition … add to this Florida’s new censorship of school libraries and state “retraining” on book collection and it’s hard not to describe this series of moves as neo-fascist. That ideology, of course, relies heavily on tightly maintaining the education of its people in a way that serves its leaders. That education usually promotes a revisionist nationalism, often calling back to idealized “better” times and/or traditions.

The following statements came from DeSantis’s office Tuesday:

“… the legislation will ensure Florida’s public universities and colleges are grounded in the history and philosophy of Western Civilization ….”

“In Florida, we will build off of our higher education reforms by aligning core curriculum to the values of liberty and the Western tradition ….”

And yet, headlines from major outlets announcing this news barely batted an eyelash. Some, like the New York Times headline below, felt the crux of the story is actually its impact on DeSantis’s political clout.

DeSantis Takes On the Education Establishment, and Builds His Brand

Not only does this wording dismiss very impactful policy as a savvy political move, but it sets up and normalizes conflict between DeSantis and the public education system. Calling it the “education establishment” — as if state government and public education don’t necessarily work in tandem — legitimizes this “culture war” and aligns itself with a populist ideology that rails against said “establishment.” The DeSantis office was probably high-fiving over this headline today.

Similarly, the headlines below support DeSantis’ point of view more than an “objective” journalist would expect. The first is a National Review headline run by Yahoo! which highlights the elimination of “bureaucracies,” language used by DeSantis and a common dog-whistle from the right as it denotes ineffective government spending. This headline fully buys into the premise that DEI initiatives are wastes of money.

DeSantis Proposes Legislation to Eliminate DEI Bureaucracies in Florida Colleges

The second, below, is from the Tampa Bay Times; a similar wording ran in Orlando’s Spectrum News 13. Both use “indoctrination” in quotes to imply the word came from DeSantis, not necessarily the newsroom. But since nothing about either headline seeks to interrogate the existence of actual indoctrination, we’re left to assume that it does actually exist. Unless, of course, the writers were attempting a bit of irony-via-scare-quotes. It wouldn’t be the first time, but it’s a cheap way of attempting to telegraph the truth without being married to it.

DeSantis proposes sweeping higher education measures aimed at ‘indoctrination’

What would have been an appropriate headline to announce DeSantis’s intervention into higher education? The Associated Press, below, simply tells it like it is.

DeSantis pushes ban on diversity programs in state colleges

 

February 9, 2023

Ex-Twitter execs grilled on Hunter Biden laptop ‘censorship’

In 2020, Twitter temporarily blocked the spread of an unverified New York Post story on Hunter Biden. Three former executives from the social media giant appeared before the House Oversight Committee Wednesday to discuss this and other decisions. Republicans consider this event “censorship,” but that’s far from a settled matter — if it was, the Washington Post wouldn’t have included the quotation marks in the live blog headline above. As we discussed in last week’s newsletter, in headlines, the use of scare quotes around a word whose accuracy is up for debate does not actually imply uncertainty to audiences. (I will die on this hill.) In this case, with no attribution, it’s unclear who is calling this censorship at all.

Furthermore, I’d also argue the word “grilled,” meaning an intense interrogation, implies that the subject warrants such questioning. This is also up for debate, making “grilled” a more sensational verb than necessary.

The Guardian went with the plain “to testify” instead, without making a judgement on whether the “handling” their headline describes below was censorship or not. In juxtaposition I think these headlines make a good case for accurate prose, even if it’s less spicy.

Ex-Twitter execs to testify in Congress on handling of Hunter Biden laptop reporting

 

March 9, 2023

Former president Donald Trump took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend. In his speech, he said:

“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice.’ Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”

This is startling language from someone running for president, let alone someone who may face criminal charges for his role in an attack on the Capitol. But many headlines covering the long, falsehood-filled speech — like the Washington Post’s, below — skipped over Trump’s authoritarian messaging. Instead, many focused on Trump’s relation to the GOP, implying the important takeaway was his electability, not his vision for America.

Trump takes victory lap at conservative conference

As the Post’s own columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote about the reports, “Coverage can be so bland and innocuous as to mislead. The audience — that is, potential voters — might easily come away from such coverage believing that Trump acted like a normal candidate, not a figure plainly unfit to handle any public position.”

What’s interesting in the Post’s case is that a piece by a different reporter under an “Analysis” banner did a much better job with its headline, below. It highlights the abnormality of Trump’s worrying rhetoric and also connects it to its origins on the right.

The juxtaposition between the tone of this “analysis” and that of the “straight” reporting exemplifies an issue we see across political journalism. In many arenas, connecting the dots of context and history for our audiences is a welcomed and necessary part of everyday reporting. But in politics, one risks the perception of “bias” when you put two and two together without applying an “analysis” or “opinion” label.

Trump’s dark ‘I am your retribution’ pledge — and how GOP enabled it

 

April 6, 2023

Trump and sons post online about judge and daughter

The above headline from MSNBC leads a video discussing remarks Trump made after his arraignment Tuesday which disparaged the judge overseeing his case and his family. This headline certainly is accurate, but it’s missing some key information: why should anyone care?

Of course, many news organizations treat anything Trump does as newsworthy, but he and his sons post online all the time. What makes this instance “special,” so to speak?

The Syracuse.com headline, below, gets to the point. What Trump posted online wasn’t exactly positive. And these targeted posts came right after his arraignment, during which Trump was warned against making incendiary social media posts. As always, the key to a good, useful headline is context, context, context!

Trump targets NY judge’s wife and daughter, hours after warning not to threaten safety

 

April 27, 2023

On Wednesday, Disney filed a lawsuit against Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Washington Post reports that Disney, “accuses DeSantis of orchestrating a campaign to punish Disney over its political views. The lawsuit comes just one week after DeSantis pledged to work with the state legislature to roll back Disney’s corporate control over its Florida theme park.” To accompany this news, the New York Times published a look at how popular corporations like Disney have weathered such attacks with the headline below.

Man vs. Mouse: Ron DeSantis Finds Taking On Disney Is a Dicey Business

As discussed previously in this newsletter, framing this debacle as a fair fight between Disney and an elected official is simply inaccurate. The origin of this saga is a statement Disney released in opposition to Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, which DeSantis signed last year. This led to a series of bad-faith attacks on the company accusing them of “grooming” minors and threats of retaliation from DeSantis. Thus the Times’ “Man vs. Mouse” framing unfairly equates the two parties’ actions. It also calls what DeSantis is doing “taking on” the company. That phrase does some light editorializing by implying that Disney did something wrong that needs to be corrected.

The headline below, from the Washington Post, is a much more even-handed approach. It simply notes the suit and the accusation at its core without equating both sides.

Disney sues Gov. Ron DeSantis, alleging political retaliation

 

May 18, 2023

The Biden administration and U.S. Congress are currently negotiating over a bill to raise the country’s debt ceiling, which would allow the government to pay its bills and stop it from running out of money. Now, I’m no expert on the debt ceiling, so I’ll let recent reports sum up the potential impacts:

From the Washington Post: Breaching the debt ceiling “could cause the government to default, unleashing economic havoc that could plunge the country into another recession.”

What would that havoc look like? From NPR: “The people who are hit first and foremost by this is anybody who is receiving some type of payment from the federal government… So you’re talking seniors or people with disabilities who get Social Security payments, military personnel and veterans benefits, federal employees, people who are getting support from programs funded by federal money like SNAP for food stamps, housing assistance. And then that has a big ripple effect on the economy from there.”

The debt ceiling is regularly lifted with little to no fuss in order to keep this from happening. So, what (or who) is stopping it this time? Well, the GOP is refusing to pass a bill to do so unless it features new policies that it wants passed but that Democrats oppose.

As New York Magazine puts it, “The difference between an ordinary negotiation over the contours of a debt-ceiling increase and extortion is that the latter includes demands and threats. The demands are not proposals to combine policy one side prefers with policy the other side wants (i.e., we’ll fund my food stamp program in return for funding your farm subsidy program). A demand is an insistence on obtaining unreciprocated policy gains that the counterparty would otherwise oppose.

The threats are the mechanism for obtaining the demands: Specifically, the threat is to refuse to lift the debt ceiling unless concessions are given in return.”

Let’s see how a few headlines frame the issue.

GOP, Democrats ready blame game for debt ceiling failure

McCarthy Says Debt Ceiling Deal Could Be Imminent—Here’s What Might Hold It Up

Tougher work requirements for federal aid programs pose obstacle in debt limit talks

The headlines above, respectively, treat the negotiation as a fair fight (The Hill), describe GOP-driven policies as an autonomous “what” that is holding up the deal of its own accord (Forbes) and describe one of these policies-as-ransom without denoting who is making it an obstacle (NBC News). None of these adequately describe the power play at hand and the agency of GOP leaders.

Why might that be? Well, as journalism professor and critic Jay Rosen writes, “There is a conflict in their code. Journalists are supposed to be world class crap detectors. But also good realists. When world class crap — using the debt limit as leverage — becomes GOP policy, the realism requirement tilts to, ‘You may not like it, but it’s smart politics.’”

The headlines below, however, do a better job by putting Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy in the driver’s seat and calling this “GOP debt ceiling crises” (MSNBC) and by referring to GOP ‘“demands” (HuffPost).

McCarthy names his ‘red line’ as GOP debt ceiling crises advances

Biden Shortens Asia Trip To Deal With GOP Debt Ceiling Demands

 

June 15, 2023

In June, Donald Trump became the first U.S. president ever charged with a federal crime. There are so many angles of this story to cover and it was difficult to choose just one. So, instead, I’ll deviate from our usual bad vs. good format and discuss a few examples from across the spectrum.

We’ll start with my least favorite, from Bloomberg, below. Is it newsworthy that Trump’s base is going strong after he was indicted again? Sure. But it is newsworthy because of what his reelection would mean for the U.S. and the impact it would have on its residents. The horse-race stats about polling and fundraising are merely the proof of this news, not the most important part. As I’ll keep repeating before the 2024 elections and as Jay Rosen says, “It’s not the odds, but the stakes.”

Trump Retains Polling Lead, Raises $6.6 Million After Indictment

Another not-great headline, from NewsNation, below, is a tried-and-true format: attribution + colon + quote. In many cases, this is a useful format for quickly communicating news. But when the quote in question is a falsehood, it only serves to amplify and legitimize the lie by giving it prominent, context-free space. Quotes like this should always be both prefaced and followed by the truth.

Trump: Indictment is ‘election interference’

Now for the positives: the headline below from the Associated Press does what, in my opinion, not enough headlines about Trump’s plea did: named the charges! With all of the charges and lawsuits Trump is involved in (see the headline that follows, from the Independent, for a good example) and the way audiences experience news avoidance, we cannot assume that everyone is keeping up. Providing just a little bit more context goes a long way.

Trump pleads not guilty to federal charges that he illegally kept classified documents

All the lawsuits and criminal charges involving Trump and where they stand

Finally, we love a headline that speaks to the service journalism within. What matters to audiences about Trump’s indictment (besides its place in history) is what happens next. The story from FiveThirtyEight below gets to it.

What’s Next In Trump’s Classified Documents Case?

 

September 7, 2023

Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville has spent months holding up military promotions based on his personal feelings about a Pentagon policy that helps military personnel obtain abortions. If you’ve been a subscriber to this newsletter for a little while, you may already know what I’m going to say about the headline from CNN below.

Growing feud over Tuberville’s stand on Pentagon nominations risks Senate confirmation of nation’s top military officer

A “feud” is a prolonged dispute that implies agency on both sides. The way Tuberville has single-handedly been blocking hundreds of U.S. military nominees is not a feud — it’s more like a hostage situation. Even though CNN writes, “The escalating feud between Democrats and Sen. Tommy Tuberville…” both Democrats and Republicans (not to mention seven former secretaries of defense) oppose Tuberville’s moves.

I appreciate how the The Associated Press headline below points out that “a single senator” is able to have so much power in this situation. However, it’s missing some important points.

Why a single senator is blocking US military promotions and what it means for the Pentagon

What I’m looking for in an ideal headline about this ordeal is:

  • Mention of halting of military promotions
  • Assignment of responsibility solely to Tuberville
  • Mention of his justification for doing so

The New York Times does it better. We get an assignment of responsibility to Tuberville, a quick nod to the military promotions, and a succinct “over abortion policy.” It checks all the boxes, in my opinion.

Tuberville Blockade Over Abortion Policy Threatens Top Military Promotions

 

October 12, 2023

When a long-term developing story breaks out, major news outlets will sometimes launch a page on their website that aggregates all of their articles on the topic. The name of that page is often found at the top of these stories, above the headline, in a spot some call the “eyebrow.” (News jargon is weird, I know.)

While reading this week, I noticed the “eyebrow” on the Washington Post’s page for news about Israel and Hamas read as follows:

Isarel-Gaza War

Most frequently, I have seen this phrased as “Israel-Hamas War,” as with The New York Times’ own topic page, below.

Israel-Hamas War News

Now, in the wake of devastating violence, I can understand why someone might read this section and think, “Who cares? Why does this matter?”

For starters, this is about accuracy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifically named Hamas in his public statement declaring Israel was at war.

But this also matters because the hyphen linking the two entities in either headline signals that each is a “side” of the war in question, and thus implicitly assigns blame for horrific acts of terror. The difference between these two phrases is the difference between separating the acts of Hamas from Gazans and lumping them together.

“Israel-Hamas War” acknowledges the nuance that, though Hamas controls Gaza, it is a polarizing force that does not necessarily represent Gazans; there have not been legislative elections in Gaza since 2006. “Israel-Gaza War” on the other hand might imply that these two entities are on equal footing and the civilians of Gaza are party to the assault they now face. And to be clear, the density of Gaza means attacks on it have and will likely continue to lead to civilian casualties.

Sure, news media necessitates shorthand and we often describe wars past and present by the land represented, not their governments. Considering that long, complicated history and the condition of Gaza, I’d argue this situation requires far more sensitivity. I’d also go as far as to argue that any non-representative government that commits an act of war should be named separately from its people in coverage of the violence that follows. Good journalism requires context, especially when it comes to histories of power.

 

October 26, 2023

Who is House Speaker Mike Johnson?

U.S. Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana was elected Speaker of the House Wednesday. He doesn’t have the same national name recognition as some of the previous speakers or recent candidates, so media outlets were quick to publish explainers. The headline above tops one from The Hill which lists Johnson’s recent moves.

These types of headlines typically score well in search engine optimization because a curious searcher might type such a phrase into Google verbatim. They’re meant to make you click, so they don’t answer the question at hand in any way.

The headline below from NBC News, on the other hand, makes an effort to actually answer the question with the most pertinent piece of Johnson’s political experience front and center for audiences impacted by this news. The person now second in line for the presidency tried to overturn the 2020 election to insert Trump as president and has been called the “most important architect of the Electoral College objections.” This is incredibly important for voters to understand — whether they have time to click through a headline or not.

GOP speaker nominee Mike Johnson played a key role in efforts to overturn the 2020 election

 

November 9, 2023

Framing is a somewhat nebulous concept, but it’s a critical one to understand as a  media maker or consumer, particularly during times of high conflict. That’s because it isn’t just about the facts, but about how the facts are presented.

I like scholar David Tewksbury’s definition of framing best: “the verbal and visual information in an article that directly or implicitly suggests what the problem is about, how it can be addressed, and who is responsible for creating and solving it.”

A key part of this definition is the “information in an article.” What is included and what is excluded from a story are often of equal import.Gaza must not be reoccupied, should be run by Palestinians, says Blinken

For example: the headline above, from the Guardian, is pretty straightforward on its face; it is a brief summary of the U.S. Secretary of State’s recent statements. But when contrasted with the headline below, from the Washington Post, it’s clear the Guardian’s writer made a distinct choice in what to leave out of this frame.

The Guardian’s choice to exclude that Blinken said Gaza should be run by Palestinians could be simply due to space constraints and prioritizing Blinken’s full name, and of course the full article does express this context. But we all know no one can read every article they see in a day, so headlines remain vital, precious real estate for telling stories. Israel is a key ally of the U.S., so Blinken’s full perspective on how this conflict should end is pertinent information.

Israel cannot reoccupy Gaza at end of conflict, says Antony Blinken

The Post’s headline writer made their own interesting choice as well by leaving out the word “Israel.” Perhaps the audience is meant to assume that the “re” in “reoccupied” implies that Israel would be the occupier again. However, I believe it’s still worth noting since there’s a big difference between post-conflict sovereignty for Palestinians and occupation by another non-Israel state.

Both headlines exhibit how subtle choices of what information is included in limited space can alter the salience of a news event.

 

November 16, 2023

In Veterans Day Speech, Trump Promises to ‘Root Out’ the Left

Donald Trump's use of the word 'vermin' draws more comparisons to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini

Would you believe me if I told you the two headlines above, the first from the New York Times and the second from USA Today, were about the same speech?

Well, it’s the truth. The full quote from Trump’s speech was:

“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections. They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American Dream.”

“Root out” in this context is damning enough; it’s Trump wanting to round up people he doesn’t like, which is dangerous rhetoric for any public figure to spout, let alone a presidential candidate. (I could also write an essay on the Times summarizing “communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left” as “the Left” but I digress.) However, there’s a reason USA Today and other outlets below highlighted the word “vermin.”

The dehumanization of political enemies and marginalized groups by calling them vermin, rodents, animals, and other objects of extermination is a well-worn authoritarian tactic. The goal of such rhetoric is to prime an audience to believe a group is less than human, to devalue their lives, so that violence and atrocities committed against them are accepted and normalized.

This is a point I wish all coverage of this event made more strongly: the key takeaway here is not that this speech is simply reminiscent of violent dictatorships, but that this type of speech has been a tool in forming those dictatorships.

I’m glad USA Today referenced that Hitler and Mussolini used similar language. I don’t love, however, the phrase “draws more comparisons” in this headline because it attributes this comparison to anonymous others, instead of the newsroom or journalist connecting the dots for us (as is their duty in a high-information, low-trust environment). The Washington Post’s version, below, uses “echoing dictators” instead. This declarative phrasing doesn’t shuck attribution to a third party but lets it stand as a statement of fact. (See the Quote of the Week below for more on this topic.)

Trump calls political enemies ‘vermin,’ echoing dictators Hitler, Mussolini

My nominee for best headline about this speech, however, is Vanity Fair’s, below. It pulls no punches by summarizing not only Trump’s word choices but also his pledged plans for a second term. Most importantly, it adds the context we all need by naming this plan a wish to “Go Full Authoritarian.”

Traditional journalism edicts might suggest that if we provide “just the facts,” audiences will understand the meaning of those facts of their own accord. This isn’t a fair assumption in the highly saturated media ecosystem in which we live. Journalists need to provide the historical connections and context whenever and wherever we can — because we have it and, unlike other professions, we have the means to disseminate it. It’s all part of the job.

Detention Camps, “Vermin” Rivals, and a Government Purge: Trump Wants to Go Full Authoritarian

 

November 30, 2023

Henry Kissinger died this week and, in turn, a flurry of obituaries and retrospectives were published by media outlets around the world. The headlines of these stories mark so wide a spectrum you’d be forgiven for wondering whether they’re all about the same man.

A sample from HuffPost, The Telegraph, USA Today, and the Washington Post, respectively:Henry Kissinger, America’s Most Notorious War Criminal, Dies At 100Henry Kissinger, a statesman who indelibly shaped US foreign policy, dies at 100

What pieces of a long public life are newsrooms to amplify when such a figure dies? For starters, journalists should by no means extend the courtesy to not speak ill of the dead when recording the first draft of history. One could say, “give us just the facts,” but how the media chooses to present the facts in what limited space they have is the name of the game.

As former U.S. Secretary of State, Kissinger could objectively be labeled a diplomat or a statesman to level-set for unfamiliar audiences. The USA Today option above hits this neutral tone without opining on what “shape” that foreign policy took.

It is a fact that Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A reporter might justify its inclusion in the headline titling his obituary because it is indisputable and an award of import.

It is also a fact that Kissinger directed the secret bombing of Cambodia, a neutral country, at the end of the Vietnam War. Attacks on neutral states are considered war crimes. The full extent of this attack would not be revealed until years later, but it is estimated to have killed as many as 150,000.

This is just one of Kissinger’s many decisions that led to death and violence. As Rolling Stone’s obituary says, “Kissinger played a role in the deaths of so many different peoples that treating each with due consideration requires writing a book.”

Some outlets used words like “divisive,” “dominant,” or “polarizing,” to avoid appearing biased in their assessment of Kissinger’s legacy. If operating from a place of moral clarity and with the above facts in hand, however, newsrooms should feel confident in making the harms he inflicted the salient part of his legacy — and write their memorializing headlines accordingly.

 

January 11, 2024

Trump can’t speak during closing arguments in NY civil fraud trial, judge says

Donald Trump’s New York civil fraud trial entered closing arguments this week. Earlier this month, presiding Judge Arthur Engoron set out the conditions for Trump to speak during these closing arguments, Newsweek reports. His office and Trump’s legal team went back and forth via email about these conditions and, ultimately, Trump’s team missed the deadline to agree to them, meaning Trump would not be allowed to speak.

The headline above, from CNN, condenses this series of events as if the judge unilaterally barred Trump’s speech without reason or discussion. With the facts in hand, this framing might make it all seem very unfair.

The headline below, from Newsweek, lays out the true impetus for this change of plans — but it doesn’t explain what that deadline was or its consequences.

Donald Trump's Lawyers Miss Critical Deadline in Engoron Trial

The CNBC headline below does a better job of combining these elements. It doesn’t mention the missed deadline, but instead emphasizes that Trump did have the option to speak. It accurately connects cause (his refusal) to effect (his being barred from speaking) without laying all fault on the judge.

Trump refuses conditions for fraud trial closing argument, won’t be allowed to speak

 

January 18, 2024

Early this morning, Donald Trump wrote the following in a long post on Truth Social:

“EVEN EVENTS THAT ‘CROSS THE LINE’ MUST FALL UNDER TOTAL IMMUNITY, OR IT WILL BE YEARS OF TRAUMA TRYING TO DETERMINE GOOD FROM BAD” … “ALL PRESIDENTS MUST HAVE COMPLETE & TOTAL PRESIDENTIAL IMMUNITY, OR THE AUTHORITY & DECISIVENESS OF A PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES WILL BE STRIPPED & GONE FOREVER.”

It is absolutely chilling that the likely GOP nominee for President of the United States is publicly demanding for presidents to have complete criminal immunity, which they do not have and, in a functioning democracy, should not have. It’s especially concerning considering Trump himself is currently facing 91 criminal charges. The phrase “cross the line” adds an ominous tone to this, to say the least — does this imply the use of violence? Where is the “line”?

In my opinion, this should be front page news — it is incredibly alarming, far outside of the norm for a presidential candidate, and a direct threat to democracy. However, when I checked a few times this morning and at the time of publishing, I found no notice of this statement on the homepages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, or CNN.

Trump warns of ‘years of trauma’ if presidents don’t have ‘total immunity’

Of the headlines I did come across, I was struck by The Hill’s, above. Leading with Trump’s “warning” and structuring the sentences as a cause-and-effect accepts his premise that the current lack of presidential immunity will have negative consequences. This is not provable or, thus far, true. All in all, it glosses over his outrageous demand for immunity.

Trump Says Presidents Should Be Allowed To ‘Cross The Line’ Without Being Prosecuted

Forbes’ headline, above, at least directly describes Trump’s statement. However, by choosing to use Trump’s phrase “cross the line,” it obscures the fact that what he’s referring to is committing crimes.

Experts alarmed after Trump demands immunity to do “infinite crimes” in 2 am Truth Social rant

The headline from Salon, above, felt the most proportional because it adds the context that experts found Trump’s statements alarming. The quote “infinite crimes,” however, is from another journalist, not from Trump himself, which might be confusing — even if it does sum up Trump’s demand in a way.

 

February 8, 2024

Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives held a vote on whether to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. As CBS News reported, “Democrats accused Republicans of using the impeachment push to score political points ahead of the 2024 election, with immigration being a top voter concern. They also argued that it failed to meet the bar of a high crime or misdemeanor, a criticism shared by legal experts on both sides of the aisle.”

Ideally, headlines covering this conflict would keep this critical context front-of-mind for audiences, signaling the weak case and accusations of its use as a political stunt.

I’d argue the headlines from The Washington Post, The Hill, and ABC News, respectively, below do just the opposite. They all use remarkably similar language to describe the vote: it was a stunning failure.

In a stunning vote, House fails to impeach Mayorkas over border issues

In stunner, House GOP bid to impeach Mayorkas fails

In stunning defeat, House Republicans fail to impeach DHS Secretary Mayorkas over border

If such a vote is “stunning” that implies its opposite outcome was seen as a foregone conclusion.

Political insiders tracking this impeachment very well might have assumed it would pass due to the GOP’s usual cohesion on issues that might benefit them come election time, like attacking the Biden administration’s immigration policy. To audiences unfamiliar with this story, however, if this lack of impeachment is “stunning,” that might read as if Mayorkas clearly deserved to be impeached.

When any vote is framed as a “failure,” that means “success” must be the opposite outcome. This frames House votes as a formality wherein the answer is always “yes” no matter the question, instead of what it is: a process by which decisions are made.

Sure, for many in the GOP this result might be a failure — they had a desire that was not fulfilled. But to the members who voted not to impeach Mayorkas, they did not “fail.” A more appropriately neutral phrasing would treat the vote as the choice-making process that it is, such as “the House declined to impeach Mayorkas.”

Among the examples I could find, CBS News (below) got the closest to this value-neutral description by using “Mayorkas survives House impeachment.” Here “survives” implies that same surprise factor but attaches those feelings to Mayorkas. His feelings about this process, after all, might be more safely assumed.

Alejandro Mayorkas survives House impeachment vote as GOP lawmakers defect

 

February 15, 2024

Judge sets March date for Trump’s Stormy Daniels hush-money trial

Donald Trump is in the midst of so many legal battles that they’ve necessitated their own public shorthand. Unfortunately, news media has given the title “hush money trial” to a criminal case Trump faces in New York. The Guardian’s example is above, but any quick Google search will surface many similar results.

But this trial is not truly about paying off adult film actress Stormy Daniels — it’s about falsifying records to cover up criminal activity.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr. said in his initial statement on the indictment, “The People of the State of New York allege that Donald J. Trump repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal crimes that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.”

The phrase “hush money” implies a scandal, but not necessarily fraud or criminal activity. I would have loved to include a headline that used a clearer phrase — perhaps “falsified records trial” — but I simply couldn’t find one that fit the bill. The “hush money” phrase is seemingly ubiquitous. The one exception I found was the headline of an opinion piece from The Daily Beast, below, which is an attempt to correct the record.

Trump’s New York Criminal Trial Is About Fraud and Undermining Democracy, Not ‘Paying Off a Porn Star’