Colombia voted for its next president. Here’s how the media dramatized it.

Colombia’s sociopolitical situation is by no means simple, yet it’s possible to report on its presidential election without overcomplicating it with spin. The Knife analyzed four news outlets that added vague, subjective and dramatic language that implied that whatever the outcome, it doesn’t bode well for Colombians and the peace deal with the FARC. Here’s a look at that distortion.

The Associated Press’ (AP) article was 81 percent spun — the most spun of the four. It’s lead sentence was:

For decades, Colombians voted with an eye on the bloody conflict with leftist rebels that dominated their country and politics.

Compare that to The Knife’s lead sentence:

Colombia held its presidential election on Sunday, with no candidate earning more than 50 percent of the vote required to win.

As with headlines, lead sentences set the tone for how readers interpret the rest of the article. While it’s true that Colombians were engaged in five decades of war and this is a key issue in the election, emphasizing it in this dramatic way, as AP did, isn’t fact-based and could taint how readers view the current situation, as well as the presidential contenders. Reuters’ lead sentence was even more spun:

Colombians voted on Sunday in a deeply divisive presidential ballot that has stirred concern the winner could upset a fragile peace accord with Marxist FARC rebels and risk former fighters returning to combat as they fear for their future.

The emotional language, which is also vague and suggestive, adds drama to the news. Like AP, Reuters’ spin supports the notion that the election’s most likely outcome will disadvantage Colombians and jeopardize the peace agreement. Again, that could happen, but the outlets didn’t explore other possibilities or perspectives in equal measure.

The articles’ vague terms, in particular, allow readers’ imaginations to make a complex situation worse. Consider this excerpt from AP:

The two leading candidates have presented dramatically different visions for both Colombia’s economic model and the future of its divisive peace process in a polarizing campaign driven by a wave of anti-establishment sentiment.

While the phrasing conveys discontent, AP didn’t define what it meant by “a wave of anti-establishment sentiment.” The additional three references to divisions further dramatize the vote, which counters the notion that in any fair election, there will be opposition or “divisiveness.” The Guardian had a similar distortion:

The more mainstream candidates – Sergio Fajardo, Humberto de la Calle and Germán Vargas Lleras – are all polling badly, indicating a polarised electorate.

Reporting polling results would better inform readers as to how “badly” candidates were doing.

News outlets can report on events — including elections such as Colombia’s — by simply relaying the facts. The spin may make for a more engaging read, but it detracts from accurately understanding what’s happening there and what challenges may lie ahead.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media