The PJ Tatler

Did You Spot These Clues to How a Reporter Skews a Campaign Story?

One of the things I learned early in my journalism training at Penn State is that a reporter can manipulate the meaning of events through word choices and source choices while appearing to remain an objective chronicler of the world as it is.

Case in point: Washington Bureau Chief Dan Roberts reports for The Guardian on the importance of Obamacare in this year’s U.S. Senate race in North Carolina between Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis.

I’ve done a seminar for high school students on how to read the news, so let’s have a little journalism clinic right now, to discover how a reporter’s word and source choices subtly sculpt your perception of the campaign, the healthcare issue and the respective politicians and their parties.

Budding journalists learn “inverted pyramid” style: a reporter must pack the most important information at the top of the story, because many readers won’t make it to your second paragraph. Here’s Dan Roberts’ first graf [that’s journo lingo for paragraph].

The closest-fought election in this November’s knife-edge battle to control the US Senate may come down to a referendum on a subject that everyone has an opinion on but few voters can claim to fully understand.

In addition to portraying voters as ignorant, I’m sure you noticed the dramatic action words — closest-fought, knife-edge, battle, control — in the first sentence.

This aggressive language hopes to woo readers from the sports section to the “hard news.” It’s an attempt to make soft-handed geeks in silk ties sound like bone-crushing middle linebackers in the Super Bowl. (And to make the reporter seem more vigorous as well.)

As you read through Roberts’ piece, you’ll find other examples that make it seem like the reporter would rather write from Tal Afar than from Charlotte: skirmish, exchange of artillery, rival, war of the airwaves, rhetorical battle, defeat, rebel, seized, terrified, dashed, heated ideological cauldron, attack, livid, battleground, enemy, fight, bitter.

This is the hook, the idea that there’s drama here so you should care. The reporter sinks that hook again and again in nearly every graf. He portrays the match as even in the polls and in campaign cash, and says the decisive factor which will swing the result is what people think of Obamacare. Of course, as we’ve recently seen in Virginia, Rep. Eric Cantor’s drubbing by a relative unknown can’t be pinned on just one factor, but that doesn’t stop the armchair quarterbacking in political journalism.

Next, let’s scrutinize how the reporter portrays the two candidates: Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis [emphasis added below].

Speaking to reporters next to a golf course on the day he received an endorsement from former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina general assembly, looks more at home in the prosperous suburbs and country clubs of Charlotte than a firebrand in the Tea Party mould.

Tillis is later described as “oblivious” to what’s happened on Capitol Hill regarding budget compromises. Roberts echoes Democrat attack ads noting that Tillis received support “from outside donors such as the Koch Brothers…National Right to Life Campaign, the National Rifle Association and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Along with the Romney endorsement and proximity to a prosperous suburb and country club, what does the reporter want us to think about Mr. Tillis? (Somewhere, a hound cocks his ear to the skirl of a whistle.)

The journalist notes also that Sen. Hagan accuses Mr. Tillis of blocking a Medicaid subsidy that “she says would have benefitted 500,000” North Carolinians. Medicaid, as you know, is a program for the poor.

Normally, I’d overlook the photo choice, since the reporter doesn’t generally make that, but in this case, the combination of Thom Tillis’ grim visage and the salute-like wave contribute to the overall portrayal in the story. Take a look on the next page.

Thom Tillis, candidate for U.S. Senate from North Carolina

We’re led to believe that the normally lackluster Democratic base is fired up by Republican “moves against unemployment insurance and voter rights” as well as attacks on women’s healthcare. The reporter musters no data to support this flat assertion.

Given his extreme views and dangerous liaisons, what kind of folks support the Republican candidate?

Doubtless Dan Roberts spoke with many voters, but he quotes only a few. The one who seems aligned with Sen. Hagan is a woman, saved by Obamacare from a “Kafkaesque journey through the insurance jungle.” She says that “people who are actively opposed to Obamacare…have most of their information wrong, or are just taking their talking points from Fox News.”

The two other voters — against Obamacare and thus likely aligned with Tillis (and Fox) — seem to surprise the reporter because one is a young Asheville hipster, and the other is a black former civil rights activist. Both warn against the dangers of government control of healthcare. The reporter quickly points out that “such heartfelt opposition to the notion that the state should interfere with the market for health insurance” is “flawed” but Republicans have “seized on the issue” anyway.

Notice that the veracity of the Hagan voter stands uncontested, yet the Tillis-leaners get painted as earnest, but deluded.

Finally, as you read this story it’s as important to notice what’s missing as what’s there.

For example, you’ll find no pejorative associations for Sen. Hagan — no mention of George Soros, MSNBC, NARAL, or the Occupy Wall Street movement to parallel Mr. Tillis’ ties to the Koch Bros., NRA, Right to Life, Chamber, Romney and Tea Party. I don’t know if Hagan has any such links, I just noticed that the reporter doesn’t tell us anything about her ideological confederates.

Perhaps you find this analysis overwrought, and would cluck your tongue at me and say, “Scott Ott, you’re reading too much into this. The reporter didn’t intend to manipulate the news, he just reported the facts as he found them.”

No one can judge the secrets of a man’s heart, so I don’t pretend to understand Dan Roberts’ motivations. However, even if he did this unconsciously, I would say caveat lector — let the reader beware.

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)