November 14, 2006

Post Election Headlines Play it Safe

If headlines are the first thing that readers see and help shape the public’s impression of events, what was the message they conveyed about the mid-term elections on November 7?

A review of approximately 230 front pages the day after the election suggests that the press, increasingly accused of leaping ahead of the news and trying to layer interpretation on events, remained pretty careful this election day. The headlines were reviewed from the website of the Newseum.

To begin with, more than half the papers examined stayed strictly local in their main headlines, not offering any national or federal results. Of the remaining 100, more than half, 51%, gravitated toward the same basic factual headline: “Democrats Take House.”

There were some slight variations. Democrats were sometimes “Dems.” Take House occasionally became “Seize” House (Decatur Alabama Daily) and every so often “Win Majority in House” (Arkansas Gazette) and even sometimes “Clinch” (Birmingham News). But “Take” dominated.

In the Los Angeles Times it was “Democrats Take House Decisively.” In the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, also in California, it was “Dems Retake House.” And in the Riverside Press Democrat they “Snared” the House.

Only a third of the headlines examined tried to offer some whimsical or rhetorical spin on the results—something along the lines of “Kings of the Hill” (San Bernadino Sun) or “Big Day for Dems” (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle), “Big Victories” (San Francisco Chronicle) or “Power Shift” (Miami Herald, Orange County Register and Santa Rosa Press Democrat).

But the clear winner when it came to headline flair this year, at least in this sample, appeared to be puns involving the word blue.

There were various “House of Blues,” (the Bakersfield Californian and the Colorado Springs Gazette among them.), and at least one “Blues Fest,” (Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa). West Hawaii Today went with “America Votes Blue.” The Indianapolis Star offered “Blue Streak.”

One paper referenced three meanings of the word to include the Democratic victory, the blue theme for the party, and the fact that Democrats rarely win anymore. It was the New London Day in the Connecticut and “Once in a Blue Moon.”

Just two of the 100 papers studied punned with “It’s D-Day.”

And one paper, Newsday in Long Island New York, referenced Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) becoming the new presumptive leader and first woman speaker of the House, with “It’s Her House.”

The verdict from this quick snapshot might be two-fold. First, there is a remarkable similarity in the thinking of front-page headline writers across the country. And in an age when the headlines people remember most, such as “Dewey Beats Truman,” are the ones that are mistakes (The New York Post declaring that Kerry had picked Gephardt as his running mate is a recent example), there may be some refuge to sticking to safe facts well in evidence.