Big drama, little data in Turkey’s electoral coverage

News outlets analyzed by The Knife called Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections “high-stakes” (CNN), “pivotal” (The New York Times and The Washington Post) and “one of the most consequential in years” (The Post). Considering the changes to Turkey’s constitution last year, which grant incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan more power, those descriptions may be accurate. However, the outlets used more dramatic or vague language than facts to back the point.

Consider the New York Times’ and CNN’s lead sentences, and how they might affect the way readers take in the rest of the information.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey claimed victory on Sunday in the country’s presidential election, sending tremors that will be felt not just in Turkey but in Western and regional capitals — if it holds up. (NYT)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared himself the winner of a high-stakes election, surviving the most serious challenge yet to his political dominance and tightening his grip on the nation he has ruled for 15 years. (CNN)

The spin, which is noted above, may be entertaining, or it could inspire fear or alarm in some readers. However, it’s vague and doesn’t really tell readers what could happen with the constitutional changes. (Both articles were 61 percent spun in The Knife’s ratings.) All that information is, of course, hard to include in the opening line of an article, but news outlets could take an unspun approach, as BBC did in its lead:

Turkey's long-standing leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan says unofficial results from the presidential elections show he has won outright in the first round.

BBC’s article was 31 percent spun by comparison. Overall, it was the most factual of the four articles, earning a 70 percent integrity rating, where 100 percent is completely objective.

Spin becomes more problematic when it supplants facts, because readers are left with certain impressions that are based on little or no data. Here’s a cross-examination of how the four outlets described the new executive powers, compared to the data they provided about them.

The outlets’ spin

BBC: Erdoğan “will hold considerable power …” He “would start his second term in a turbo-charged version of the job …”

CNN: He “will gain sweeping new powers …” The constitutional changes “transform the country's parliamentary system to a powerful executive presidency …”

NYT: The changes “allow[ed] him to create a stronger, more powerful state …”

WAPO: The election will grant “the victor sweeping executive powers …”

The facts each outlet provided about the constitutional changes

BBC: “The job of prime minister would be scrapped and the president would gain new powers, including the ability to directly appoint senior officials.”

CNN: None.

NYT: “Since a failed coup in July 2016, [Erdoğan has ruled] … by presidential decree and imposing a state of emergency. … Under the new system, the prime minister’s office will be abolished and the cabinet will be composed of presidential appointees rather than elected lawmakers. Parliament’s powers are reduced, including oversight of the budget.”

WAPO: The new presidential system “curbs the authority of parliament and the judiciary.”

To gain a fuller understanding of what the constitutional changes entail, one would have to read more than one article, or luck out with an article like the Times, which provided the most information. Here are some other facts the outlets didn’t include about the new powers. According to The Independent, the president now:

  • serves as head of government, head of state and head of the ruling party;

  • is supported by vice presidents, in lieu of the dissolution of the prime minister’s role;

  • can appoint cabinet ministers without requiring a confidence vote from parliament;

  • can propose budgets;

  • can appoint more than half the members of the nation’s highest judicial body;

  • can dissolve the national assembly;

  • can impose states of emergency.

Every news outlet varies the amount of data it includes, and outlets don’t need to cover all of Turkey’s constitutional changes in detail. But ideally, the points and table above provide a useful comparison that illustrates what’s lost when drama is favored over data.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media