Media lessons: 5 steps to sensationalize the Pennsylvania election, or not

Political races are known for drama and mudslinging that can sway voter decisions. Should the press follow suit?

We analyzed four news outlets covering Pennsylvania’s special election for its 18th congressional seat, in which Democrat Conor Lamb is leading against Republican Rick Saccone. You could say it was a significant contest, considering the seat had previously been held by a Republican and Trump won the district by nearly 20 points in 2016.

If you compare our Raw Data to any of the articles we analyzed, you’ll find a marked difference: we presented the facts and provided contextual information that helps understand the significance of this particular race; the other outlets provided some facts, and also distorted the information in ways that prioritize sensationalism over facts.

Based on that distortion, we’re providing this 5-step list to show you how you can take ordinary facts from an election and turn them into what’s currently common in news reporting. Of course, we’re approaching this with a sense of humor, and hope the lesson each step provides weighs heavily in your own evaluation.

1. Start strong

Why wait to add sensationalism to an article when you can do it in the headline? To make sure it catches readers’ attention, don’t emphasize the election or the facts. Instead, focus on an issue or personality that can rile readers up on both sides of the political aisle. As BBC did in its headline, make it about Trump: “A terrible night for Trump in Pennsylvania.”

The lesson? While it may get more clicks, this approach obscures the facts and promotes giving the president undue attention in the media.

2. Turn up the drama

Sprinkle spin wherever you can — that is, add dramatic, subjective or vague language — especially if it supports your point of view. Here are a few examples from The New York Times and BBC. Both were 75 percent spun! (The spin is noted in red below; for other similar examples, see our Fiction vs. Fact section.)

Why settle for facts like these?

  • Lamb is leading in the race against Saccone.
  • Democrats will run for seats in areas that voted for Trump.
  • Some Republicans disagree with Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) views.
  • Some Democrats were defeated in the 2010 special and midterm elections.

When you can have this?

  • NYT: Lamb … has pulled off a staggering upset over Rick Saccone …
  • NYT: To the extent that Democrats attempt further incursions into Trump country
  • BBC: Ms. Pelosi …has long been a villain for Republicans …
  • BBC: In 2010, Democrats - watching their own set of special election defeats - saw a wave coming and scrambled to find a way to protect themselves.

The lesson? Spin is appropriate in certain contexts, such as in entertainment and the arts. When it’s spliced into the news, it trains readers to hold sensationalism as the standard, not facts. This is akin to training your palate to tolerate higher levels of salt, making the natural taste of food pale in comparison. Do we want to create a world in which the straight facts aren’t enough?

3. Sling the mud

Dealing low blows is common in politics, and news outlets join in too. Nothing quite gets a conversation going like criticizing people or their traits! Outlets can do that in their writing, or by citing similar comments. BBC, for example, wrote that the special election gave Trump a “bloody nose.” The Washington Post quoted Executive Director of CLF Corry Bliss saying this in relation to Saccone, “We need to stop nominating joke candidates.”

The lesson? Criticism can be a useful tool when applied to ideas and actions — challenging people’s views or arguments often expands the points themselves, as well as the process of critical thinking. But criticizing people’s character is a one-sided subjective evaluation that promotes a bullying culture, in which attacking or disparaging others becomes the norm. The Post could have written that Bliss didn’t agree with Saccone’s nomination or possibly his views; citing him without acknowledging the ad hominem attack foments that societal grooming towards dishonor.

4. State opinion as fact

There are facts, and then there’s what we make of them (aka opinion). Journalistic pieces such as op-eds and analyses provide readers with valuable opinions. Can’t news articles too? Here are a couple of examples from The Wall Street Journal. Note: these aren’t quoted opinions; they’re the outlet’s own.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mr. Ryan tried to minimize the broader significance of the special election.

Knife note: There’s what Ryan said, and then there’s what the Journal made of what he said. You’re getting the latter here.

Pennsylvania’s special election suggests a shifting landscape.

Knife note: Does it really? The election results could be an indication of voter sentiment in the November general election. But where’s the data on that? Also, the Journal didn’t mention that Pennsylvania’s 18th district may no longer exist in a few months, and both Lamb and Saccone will need to run again in November (BBC and the New York Times didn’t mention this either). When you consider that, how does the prospect of this election “shifting a political landscape” seem?

The lesson? Opinion is valid and can be useful when it’s denoted as such. Conflating fact with opinion in news reporting isn’t. Because of its subjective nature, opinion leads readers to draw conclusions based on their own partial understanding. Facts, which are objectively measurable, can help readers reach conclusions that are more in line with reality (aka the observable universe).

5. Digress

Sure, the contest was between Lamb and Saccone, and we can focus on their platforms and views on key issues that might have factored into voter decisions, especially in light of the fact they might be running again soon. But who wants to read about that? These excerpts from the Times are far more compelling.

As Republican lawmakers spilled out of their morning conference meeting, few seemed willing to come to grips with how much Mr. Trump is energizing Democrats and turning off independent voters.
Yet even as most of the Republicans pinned the blame on Mr. Saccone’s fund-raising weakness or held up Mr. Lamb’s willingness to oppose Ms. Pelosi, refusing to fault Mr. Trump, one retiring lawmaker was more blunt.
Democrats were buoyant at Mr. Lamb’s victory, viewing his upset as both a harbinger of a November wave and perhaps a sign that the party had overcome some of the most stinging Republican attack lines of the Obama years.

The lesson? When you boil down the who-what-when-where-why-and-how of a news story, it tends to be pretty short — that’s what our Raw Data does. Providing contextual information that helps understand the news is useful, and we often include it in our Raw Datas, as we did in this story.

However, contextual data and opinion that doesn’t directly change our understanding of a story opens the door to implication, premature conclusions and slant (favoring one perspective over others). Are Trump, Pelosi and so-called Obama-era “Republican attack lines” central to this story? Will these things ultimately inform voters who’ll participate in the upcoming elections?


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media