November 5, 2010

Parsing Election Day Media - How the Midterms Message Varied by Platform

Newspaper Headlines – A Republican Romp

If there were mixed political messages emanating from the ballot box on November 2, they tended not to be present in the daily newspaper headlines the next morning. Perhaps more than any other element in media, newspapers headlines must distill things to the barest essentials. To some extent, they are hardest message for partisans to spin and the least likely to be cluttered with qualifications.

A review of approximately 100 newspaper front pages found that the headlines overwhelmingly hammered home a simple, unadulterated point—a Republican romp.
In a format that is designed to distill things into their barest essentials, and to some extent is harder for the partisans to spin, the message was clear.

Colorful headlines, so to speak, abounded. “Red Wave,” declared the Indianapolis Star in a headline that was close kin to “Voters See Red” in the Quad City Times of Iowa and “Crimson Tide” in the Patriot-News of Harrisburg Pennsylvania. Several papers, including the Arizona Republic and Miami Herald, went with the phrase “Power Shift,” a sentiment closely related to the Memphis Commercial Appeal headline, “Right Turn” and “Making a Right Turn” in the Omaha World-Herald.

The idea of the GOP making history was prominent in some headlines, such as “Republicans’ historic night” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or “GOP in historic sweep of House” in the Washington Examiner. Some headline writers turned to alliteration, giving readers “Republican Rout” in the Detroit News and the “GOP Gallops” in the Austin American-Statesman.

A number of headlines also stressed the voters’ rejection of the Democrats. “G.O.P. Takes House: Setback for Obama and Democratic Agenda” declared the New York Times while the Wisconsin State Journal characterized the results as a “rebuke to politicians on the left.”

Instances where headlines stressed the idea that both parties still controlled a legislative chamber were much fewer and farther between. The Arizona Daily Star (in Tucson) went with “GOP takes House, Dems hold Senate” and the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa California bucked the tide with its “Power Divide” headline, a different take than the more popular “Power Shift” description.

The role of the tea parties, while a significant element of the pre-election narrative, was not highlighted in the November 3 headlines. The Virginian-Pilot did go with “GOP Surges: Across the U.S.: Tea party flexes its muscle.” That was countered by the headline in the News Journal of Wilmington Delaware—a state in which tea party-backed senate candidate Christine O’Donnell was trounced on Election Day—which read simply: “No taste for tea.”