U.S. Elections 2022: Language & Framing Guide
Published October 2022
Our guide to reporting on the 2022 U.S. elections includes both a list of language hang-ups that are common to political reporting as well as tips for framing this coverage. We welcome any and all feedback. Please write to us at email@example.com with feedback, suggestions, and questions.
Below is not a comprehensive glossary for reporting on U.S.-based elections. Instead, our guide focuses on particular terms that may make reporting more difficult to navigate for audiences. Click or tap each term to expand its definition.
Absentee voting vs. early voting vs. mail-in voting & vote by mail
These terms are not necessarily interchangeable across the U.S. In some cases, it’s really a “rectangle-square” situation, in which all absentee voting is mail-in voting, but not vice versa. Use the correct vocabulary for your region so residents know which guidance to follow.
Provide a glossary of terms for your audience to link to in your coverage but also be sure to define (or gloss) these terms in the sentence where they are used, as not all audiences will see or visit a glossary link.
This is the appropriate adjectival form to describe an action or event that is in opposition to democracy. However, for some audiences it may bring to mind the democratic process rather than 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.
The phrase “casting doubt” means to sow uncertainty or mistrust about something. Without further context, the phrase may imply that this doubt is warranted or raised in good faith.
When a public figure baselessly, misleadingly, or against evidence to the contrary calls valid voting processes into question, “casting doubt” may be unnecessarily giving those statements the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, reporters may not be able to determine the intention of a public figure “casting doubt” on the validity of election results. They can, however, describe the impact of those statements. Sowing distrust among an electorate — especially in a way the speaker would benefit from — is proactively undermining the results of that election.
Consider these or similar substitutions:
- casts doubt on election results ⇒ undermines election results with baseless claims
- casts doubt on election results ⇒ denigrates trust in election results with misleading claims
- casts doubt on election results ⇒ against all evidence, Speaker X opposes valid election results
The typical denotation for this term is fundamentally unserious and even dismissive. However, it is often applied to the loose theories of mis- and disinformation surrounding QAnon and its followers, which, as a political phenomenon with serious real-world consequences, may not be appropriately described this way. One alternative, suggested by Buzzfeed News, is “collective delusion.”
Being slow or late is the denotation of a “delay,” but the common connotation is that a delay is unnatural, occurring as a result of some external action. Thus, using “delay” to describe the expected pace of an event incorrectly associates it with intention or interference.
Consider these or similar substitutions:
- early voting delays election results ⇒ election results on track for longer counting process
- mail-in voting slows ballot count ⇒ mail-in voting means longer ballot count
- this year, expect late ballot counts ⇒ expect slower pace for election results
Like climate change 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.
Consider these or similar substitutions:
- election deniers ⇒ people opposing election results
- election denialism ⇒ opposition to certified 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
Due to changes in voting processes made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, an increase in mail-in voting may delay election results in close races past the timeline to which most Americans are accustomed. Using this term instead of “Election Day” appropriately sets expectations for audiences.
When accompanying the political endorsement of an Editorial Board, the words “Opinion:” or “Editorial Board:” should appear first in headlines. This way, it is clear that the endorsement does not come from the newspaper staff as a whole and that the clarification does not get cut off by metadata on social media posts. Confusion among audiences about these terms is well-established.
Far right/far left
Avoid vague terms like “far right” and “far left” to describe extreme ends of the Democratic or Republican parties. These provide little context for audiences and additionally stoke partisanship. Instead, be precise in describing what views or policies push the subject in question outside of the mainstream.
A race cannot be “flipped,” “taken,” or “stolen” until the ballots are counted. Do not use this language to describe how the counting of mail or absentee ballots may affect final results in comparison to in-person, day-of voting. Implying that a race is decided by which votes are counted first equates when votes are counted with either legitimacy or illegitimacy. Instead, where needed, explain that the final result is unclear due to as-yet-uncounted ballots.
In the lead/ahead
When reporting incomplete vote tallies, use these terms with extreme caution. If you aren’t able to confidently call a race, don’t use terms that imply result outcomes are certain. Instead, if current vote tallies are not yet definitive, explain why, note the number of uncounted ballots that remain, and emphasize that the race isn’t over until all ballots are counted.
Describing how the counting of all ballots will affect the results of an election as a “mirage” or “shift” in an attempt to prepare audiences for changing tallies is an admission that reporting on results is premature and should thus be avoided. Rather than try to explain to audiences why “results” may appear to change at all, explain why your newsroom cannot call a race, when it may do so, and how many votes are still uncounted.
When dealing with significant increases in mail-in voting, the number of precincts reporting — a typical and well-understood gauge for how “final” results are — is unlikely to be accurate or helpful in understanding how far the ballot count has to go. Use this phrase sparingly, and not without explanation for mail-in caveats.
If an election poll (or any poll, for that matter) truly needs its own headline, that headline should always start with “Poll:” and ideally “X Source Poll:” (as in “CNN Poll: Purple Party ahead”) to reinforce that the information which follows comes from a poll and is not a certainty.
Explain to your audience how your publication defines undecided voters when reporting in the aggregate and what definitions are being used when referencing polling (whether results are based on voting patterns or self-identification, etc.). Research shows “undecided voters” are not necessarily independent, moderate or non-partisan, though framing may assume them to be.
Wins and losses
“Horse race” coverage of elections that focuses on “wins” and “losses” for either party are linked to audience distrust in politicians and news outlets, as well as to advantages for unusual or novel candidates. To report on elections from a pro-democracy lens, reporters should focus on what election results mean for voters’ lives and avoid “us-vs.-them” language. Reframe “wins” and “losses” as steps forward or backward for social movements and the people impacted by political decision-making.
Consider these or similar substitutions:
- win for X party ⇒ win for voters who support X
- loss for advocates ⇒ loss for those impacted by X policy
- attacks on voting process are a threat to X party’s majority ⇒ threat to democracy
This phrase, often used to denote a false or misleading statement made by a public figure, is only appropriate when no evidence both for and against the statement exists. If evidence exists that refutes their statement, then “without evidence” is inappropriate because it assumes the truth is unknowable. If one speaks without evidence to support their claims when refutations exist, “against evidence” may be more appropriate.
Framing Your Story
High-stakes events like elections are demanding times for reporters and confusing ones for audiences. It’s crucial that journalists think deeply about how to frame their elections stories so that their work is both fair and useful. Approaching your reporting with the following frames can help build trust by focusing on transparency and voter impact.
Journalism is a pro-democracy occupation.
Sharing information to help others make decisions that affect their lives and communities is a democratic value. This is why journalism is considered a pillar of democracy. If you are a journalist, you are pro-democracy. It is not politically biased or partisan for newsrooms to report accurately on attacks on U.S. democracy.
- Acknowledge antidemocracy. If a party or person is actively making decisions or acting in a way that disrupts the democratic process, baselessly stokes distrust in it, or subverts it entirely, you are not a partisan shill for pointing it out. In fact, it is a journalist’s duty to tell your audience this plainly and clearly.
- Contextualize politicians’ and candidates’ actions in political history. When political actors’ actions or words are antidemocratic or fit the definition of a political ideology in opposition to democracy (autocratic, minoritarian, authoritarian, fascist, etc.) ensure that your audience receives the relevant historical background to make sense of current events.
- Avoid “bothsidesism” and false equivalence. “Bothsidesism” in journalism means providing information about or from the right and left in equal measure to “prove” one’s lack of bias, regardless of the information’s proportionality or truthfulness. False equivalence means comparing two things that are not equal just because they come from two different sides. These frames are to be avoided, especially when comparing attacks on U.S. democracy to reactions to those attacks.
- Don’t participate in journalistic ventriloquism. This means attributing accurate descriptions that one political party may object to (in good or bad faith) to a vague third party by using phrases like “critics say,” “some say,” “was widely criticized as,” or “was echoed by” in order to avoid allegations of bias. If 2+2=4, it is your duty to share the equation with your audience.
Issues & impact matter more than party wins or losses.
Describing the system we use to solve our problems as a game or sport for politicians to play is linked to both distrust in politicians and distrust in news media. This is far from the first reporting guide to expound on the harm done to American democracy by political coverage that treats elections like horse races. But it certainly bears repeating, because it is all too easy to slip into these metaphors.
The antithesis of this is reporting that frames elections as the process for deciding who voters believe will provide solutions to the issues we face, and describes campaigns as ways to convince voters that their candidate is capable of executing that vision.
- Drop the language of “wins,” “losses,” and “battles.” Describing events only in terms of their effect on an election scoreboard erases the actual real-world consequences of those events, abstracting and downplaying the real people they impact.
- Describe the issues as the people’s issues, not the party’s. Referring to the problems and solutions politicians focus on solely as “talking points” and “campaign issues” effectively erases constituents from the democratic process.
- Frame disputes over the election process as problems for democracy, not candidates. Describing the actions of politicians as things their opponents are “worried” about or are causing them “headaches” in the context of winning elections, rather than issues residents of a democracy might be concerned with, emphasizes the game of politics over its impact.
Races don’t end until the ballots are counted.
Election coverage must not legitimize ending ballot counts early (as in, changing the timeline once voters have begun voting) or amplify partisan narratives that seek to delegitimize counting ballots after November 8 as U.S. elections have long been finalized after “Election Day.” Attempts to end legal ballot counts before results are finalized or toss out legally placed votes is antidemocratic and should not be treated as simply a partisan “strategy” or “tactic.” Election reporting should be pro-democracy and explain to audiences that races are not won or lost until ballots are counted.
- Refute premature, false claims of victory and explain when races can be called. Sharing false claims by political actors, especially out of context or standing alone as a headline or chyron, is not journalism, it is spreading misinformation.
- Begin every headline and lead paragraph with the true statement before explaining why a public statement is false. Thanks to the cognitive bias of the primacy effect, which gives information we learn first extra weight in our minds, inaccurate narratives are difficult to correct once absorbed. It is not enough for newsrooms to simply wait for an accurate call if false information is circulating.
- Remember the power of repetition. In breaking through to your audience, repetition can be your enemy or your friend. Repeating lies in order to debunk them can actually give the lies more salience. But don’t be afraid to share important information with your audiences more than once — folks who aren’t glued to their TVs or feeds all Election Week will appreciate recaps.
Normalize slow(er) ballot counts
It is likely that some U.S. races will not have a clear winner by late November 8 or early the next morning, as many voters typically expect. Several Republican candidates have already refused to state they’ll accept valid election results. So it is reasonable to prepare for the possibility that candidates will claim a lack of clear immediate winners proves baseless claims of voter fraud or even victory. Journalists should use the language and framing of their reporting to set expectations and reinforce the validity of a voting process that may take longer than in years past.
- Slower is not incorrect. Reporting that makes the slower-than-usual processing of ballots sound inherently incorrect or corrupt (instead of potentially expected and reasonable) sows doubt in the democratic process.
- When using visuals of long voting lines, emphasize context. It’s critical that American voters understand that long lines at the polls are a form of voter suppression. However, presenting photos and videos of these long lines without that context might only serve to convince audiences that they don’t have the time to vote. Balance both messages by sharing wait times and emphasizing voting rights.
Polls are predictions, not predeterminations.
The distribution model of modern media — social feeds, short news segments, fleeting radio reports — requires a lot of simplification of complex ideas, polls and predictions among them. This often leads to headlines and framings that make political predictions sound a lot more certain than they are. Consider including boilerplate language with reporting on polls and predictions that explain what they really are: largely planning tools for political campaigns, not crystal balls that audiences should form their voting plan or opinions around.
- Always note when, how, and why you expect information to change. Rapidly changing information without context can spur distrust and confusion. In an information overload environment, don’t assume audiences will find updates they didn’t even know to expect.
- Answer audience questions in advance. Create a post or segment that explains how you expect to report out results, i.e. your internal pace and how you’ll use social media or live coverage. Link to and/or repeat it frequently.
- Know how forecasting impacts voter turn out. Using polling and data to project who is most likely to win a race (or implying such through the framing of poll coverage) may actually impact election outcomes. Research suggests probabilistic forecasting may actually create lower voter turnout.
Visit the resources below for additional guidance.
- The Citizens Agenda Guide to Elections Coverage
- American Press Institute: Trusted Elections Network Guide to Covering Elections and Misinformation
- The Psychology of Fake News: Accepting, Sharing, and Correcting Misinformation
- Source Hacking: Media Manipulation in Practice
- Election SOS (Hearken x American Press Institute)
- Essential Resources for the US Election: A Field Guide for Journalists on the Frontlines
- Reporting Recipe: How to Report on Voting by Mail
We recommend journalists — on the politics beat and otherwise — check out these must-reads.
- Opinion: How Objectivity Can Make Audiences Cynical about Politics—and Journalism
- Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy by James Fallows
- TV coverage of Bush v. Gore is a scary reminder of what can go wrong on election night
- Key things to know about election polling in the United States