Reporting on U.S. Elections: Tips from Our Newsletter
Last Updated February 2024
The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on U.S. elections published in our weekly newsletter, Revisions. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.
January 20, 2022
On January 19, 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.
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.
By contrast, this 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.
October 20, 2022
The headline above, from CNN, is from a report on newly released body camera footage of the arrests of Florida residents who allegedly committed voter fraud in 2020. Those facts — footage was released, residents were arrested, and for those alleged crimes — are true. But they don’t tell the whole story.
These arrests were the work of the new Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security created by Governor Ron DeSantis this year. In some cases, as the Tampa Bay Times reported, the arrests are clearly the result of a confusing rollout of a 2018 state constitutional amendment restoring the right to vote for many felons. It’s also unclear whether any of those arrested willfully committed fraud, which is how the state law defines the crime. These arrests also happened just hours before a press conference DeSantis led to promote this new initiative.
The headline from CBS News below paints a fuller picture of what’s going on here. It attributes the arrests to the work of DeSantis, hinting at the aforementioned context, and underlines the confusion at the center of the events. As always, the more context, the better for the audience.
October 27, 2022
Earlier this week, Senate candidates John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz participated in a live televised debate. The fact that Fetterman is recovering from a stroke he experienced in May was front and center in a lot of debate coverage. His speech and auditory processing were affected by the stroke which, as much-discussed after a recent NBC News interview, means he has used closed captioning accommodations for such events.
Of course one’s presentation during a live debate will factor into how audiences interpret the “winner” — Nixon vs. Kennedy taught us that. But journalists have an incalculable impact on public discourse surrounding political events. That’s why it’s important that we don’t put our thumbs on the scale by centering style over substance, as the headline from The New York Times’ live blog above exemplifies.
Fetterman’s recovery is part of his campaign story, so it’s no surprise its impact on a live debate would be part of the conversation. But, considering his primary care physician has attested to Fetterman’s fitness for office, a focus on his disability in coverage has very little purpose besides advancing harmful ableist narratives. As reporter Michael Hobbes pointed out on Twitter, this type of coverage also encourages voters to focus more on optics than impact.
A headline from The Philadelphia Inquirer’s live blog below gets it right by focusing on the issues and policies Fetterman and Oz discussed. That’s what debates are for, after all: determining candidates’ standings on the issues that impact voters — not their style of speech.
November 3, 2022
Before the U.S. Federal Reserve raised target interest rates in November 2022, CNN and CBS News both previewed the change online. The headline above was featured on CNN’s homepage the afternoon of the announcement. It gets the main point right, of course — the “hike” was historic. But it frames the event as “a problem for Biden,” presumably in that it would impact his approval ratings or his party’s election chances.
That may be true, of course, and considering November’s elections it may even be a relevant point to some. But, as research has shown, reporting that frames public issues as just fodder for the political game sows distrust among the public — in both the news and politicians.
CBS News’s take, below, not only piques the interest of the public by being service-oriented. It also reframes the Fed’s move as one that impacts people over politics. Yes, everything is political; but erasing voters from the conversation is just plain bad for civic engagement.
April 20, 2023
Earlier this week, Fox settled with Dominion Voting Systems in a defamation suit over coverage that spread misinformation about the 2020 election. The false coverage included stating that Dominion’s machines were faulty and “flipped” votes from Trump to Biden. In the lead up to the trial, depositions revealed that Fox executives and anchors knew they were peddling falsehoods about a “stolen” election.
While the above headline from the New York Times is accurate, I much prefer the one below from CNN. It sure is lengthy, but it explains the timing of the settlement, why it was made, and what the suit was about. The Times headline doesn’t even mention who sued Fox, let alone what defamation was alleged. All of this is very important context.
I’ll also give an honorable mention to a headline from The Intercept, below. The report explains how cable payments from viewers who don’t watch Fox subsidize the network. A similar headline could have been written about how this settlement will prove to be a huge tax break for Fox, as well. U.S. residents pay in more ways than one.
November 16, 2023
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 15, 2024
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.
‘Horse race’ coverage of elections: What to avoid and how to get it right
‘Horse race’ coverage of elections can harm voters, candidates and news outlets: Research
Denise-Marie Ordway, Journalist’s Resource
“Horse race” elections coverage is characterized by a focus on who is likely to win an election, including an emphasis on opinion polls, at the expense of what policies the candidates espouse and whether they’re popular with voters.
24 lessons for the 2022 elections
American Press Institute
While you’re planning your coverage of the U.S. midterm election, check out this list of two dozen applicable lessons from the American Press Institute, Hearken, and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Then, share the list with the rest of your newsroom!
If Trump runs again, do not cover him the same way: A journalist’s manifesto
Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post
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? Read it, stew on it, and send me your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.
Framing & Word Choice
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.
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.
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
July 6, 2023
February 8, 2024
National disability rights advocacy organization The Arc has published a journalist’s guide to reporting on disability in the context of the 2024 election. It makes a perfect companion to The Journalist’s Resource’s new explainer on the barriers faced by people with disabilities when voting. Send these around your newsroom as the U.S. primaries and caucuses continue.
February 15, 2024
From the department of great timing: The Journalist’s Resource has published a guide to creating judicial election guides.
February 22, 2024
The Global Investigative Journalism Network has revised its Elections Guide for Investigative Reporters for 2024. It recommends investigative reporters prepare for upcoming elections by broadening their usual scope to anti-democratic actors. The guide asserts, “it is up to journalists to use compelling evidence and sources to show them the possible perils of embracing autocracy and the potential vulnerability of their constitutions, institutions, and laws.”
Speaking of 2024 elections, Source has also published a list of fact-checking tools that might help you out this season.
Thoughts & Thinkers
Journalist Wesley Lowery sums up what many who study and critique media were thinking during Election Week 2022. The question remains: how do we bring the dominant narrative closer to reality?
Democracy Docket founder Marc E. Elias’s correction is important. The AP’s framing of certifications as a choice — rather than something the county is obligated to do — normalizes attacks on the democratic process by partisans who reject other parties’ wins.
“…it was polling that put Clinton ahead of Trump by one to seven percentage points in the popular vote. It was polling that told us there would be a ‘red wave’ in 2022… And it was polling that told us, even as far back as 1995, that Bob Dole would wipe the presidential floor with Bill Clinton. But nearly 30 years later, like Lucy and the football, we are yet again treating junk polls as gospel.”
— Molly Jong-Fast, Vanity Fair
In a new essay titled, “The Media Is Giving Us 2016 Flashbacks,” Jong-Fast gives a failing grade to coverage of the 2024 election. Her take on polling should serve as a stark reminder to all of us consuming election coverage this year and next.
“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.
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.
Writer James Surowiecki’s commentary on a quote from a recent episode of Meet the Press applies a much-needed corrective to a far too credulous statement. If Trump privately supports a national abortion ban that is slightly less restrictive than some of his right-wing peers, that does not mean it is a centrist viewpoint. It is still a very conservative perspective in comparison to current legal standards across the U.S. and public opinion on abortion. This type of inaccurate coverage actually helps move that “center” to the right by implying popular opinion is different than it is in reality.