What political news reports should contain – but often do not

News reporters are supposed to use as a maxim that their articles provide answers to five questions: who, what, when, where, and why. But very often, they short-change the first four and go straight to the ‘why’ question, instead of first telling us the first four and letting us form our own opinions.

Some of the irritants are:

  1. In talking about upcoming elections, not giving the exact date but saying things like ‘next month’ or ‘three weeks from now’.
  2. In reporting election results, not giving us the actual votes or the percentages of at least the main candidates but instead just giving us the margin of victory or, even worse, using words such as ‘won easily’ or ‘won narrowly’ and similar formulations.
  3. In opinion polls, not giving us the numbers in favor of the candidates or positions but instead just telling us who or what is ahead. They also often omit important information as to whether the people polled were all citizens or registered voters or likely voters, and what the sample size (or margin of uncertainty) was.
  4. In economic news, they report in general terms, such as that ‘inflation has increased’ rather than telling us what the actual change was and whether it was year over year, or month over month, and what measure was used.
  5. When there is a vote in Congress in either body, they do not give the actual votes in favor or against the motion and the way that the parties split on it.
  6. In major legal decisions (say at the Supreme Court or Appeals Court levels where the result is by a panel of judges), not giving the votes in support of the majority and minority opinions and the names of the justices who voted on either side. Instead, they talk of how the ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ voted and only give names when there are unexpected alliances. They should also provide links to the actual opinions, but almost never do.

Here is an example of item #6 about a major decision that was handed down two days ago.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said it will allow Louisiana to use for the 2024 elections a congressional map that includes a second district where the majority of voters are Black, giving them the opportunity to elect their favored candidate.

The justices granted two separate requests – one from a group of Black voters and civil rights groups and the second from the state of Louisiana – to put on hold a decision from a three-judge federal district court panel that blocked Louisiana from using the newly redrawn map in any upcoming election.

The district lines were crafted and approved by the GOP-led legislature in January after federal courts rejected an initial congressional map adopted in March 2022 for likely violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. 

The court appeared split along ideological lines. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan said they would deny the requests for a stay. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented, writing that she would have let a remedial process before the district court play out before considering whether emergency intervention was warranted.

It is a long article but somehow could not find space to say who authored the majority and minority opinions, which justices signed on to each one, and what the final split was. And of course, they did not provide links to the opinions. The article is also unclear about what the case is all about. This article is better but was written before the Supreme Court opinion was handed down. It shows the contested map and why the legislature created a weird snake-like district shown in green.

The reason for these oddly shaped districts is that Louisiana’s Republican legislature hoped to accomplish two goals when it drew these new maps. It knew that it must include two Black-majority districts to comply with Judge Dick’s order in the Robinson case, but it also wanted to ensure that three Republican incumbents – Speaker Mike Johnson, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, and Rep. Julia Letlow – would still prevail under the new maps.

Additionally, the Robinson plaintiffs claim that the state legislature wanted to ensure that the new Black-majority district would come at the expense of Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), who they describe as a “political rival” of Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry (R).

I found the link to the actual opinion here. I also finally found an article that said that the Supreme Court vote was 6-3 and further clarified what was at stake in this case.

The 6-to-3 vote in the case was a difficult to understand, with the court’s six conservative justices voting to allow the Louisiana plan for two majority-Black districts to go into effect, while the court’s three liberals would not have intervened at this point.

Election expert Rick Hasen of UCLA said the liberals likely disagreed because Wednesday’s case appears to give the court an additional tool to OK or veto congressional redistricting plans months before an election.

It is possible that news editors may think that people are innumerate and putting in actual numbers may cause the eyes of many readers to glaze over and that they will turn away. But this lack of actual data and information leads to an infantilizing of the audience. Rather than give us the tools to do our own analysis, they want to tell us what it all means.

In this case I was able to track down all the pertinent information but surely it would not be that hard to provide everyone with easy access to it. Perhaps in the days when there were only print newspapers, the limits of space required omitting some information, though even then you would think that factual information would be prioritized over opinion and analysis. But with the availability of hyperlinks, there is really no excuse for making people have to search for basic information.


  1. says

    But very often, they short-change the first four and go straight to the ‘why’ question…

    Well, that’s better than what I used to hear them do on TV news — which is to report some “tragic” fatal accident or mass-shooting, and then robotically drone “residents in this community are asking ‘why?'” Without actually showing anyone asking ‘why,’ or trying to offer any answer to that question, or giving any reason why anyone would do so.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    i strongly suspect undisclosed reader/listener/viewer polls inform reporters & editors that significant portions of their audience prefer spoon-feeding, and say that “hard” facts are harder to absorb.

  3. file thirteen says

    Political media reports don’t contain all the facts?! Gee, hold the front page. Modern media companies know that they profit from entertaining news, not informing news. If you actually want to be informed, you must be one of those rare people who is bright enough to google out the information from the misinformation yourself, and you will visit those information sites that have less hits (and make less money) than the entertainment pages.

    And for online media, it’s job done as soon as a reader follows the clickbait headline; how much they read afterwards is mostly irrelevant. After the Christchurch earthquake, the headlines were full of eg. “6.5 quake rocks North Island”. It was only those who bothered to read the full articles that learnt that most of those tremours were barely felt because they were well over 100km deep underground.

  4. prl says

    In opinion polls, not saying what the error margins are, and reporting changes that lie inside those margins as important news.

    “Party X support fell by 0.5%!” (but the poll error margin is 3%)

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