Five misleading implications in the Virginia election coverage
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Five misleading implications in the Virginia election coverage

November 8, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Democrats win governor races in Virginia, New Jersey, mayoral race in New York City

On Tuesday, U.S. voters cast ballots in a general election for state and local government offices. Virginia elected Ralph Northam (D) as governor, and New Jersey elected Philip D. Murphy (D) as governor. New York City incumbent Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) was re-elected.

Results in special congressional and state elections included:

Governor, New Jersey: Philip D. Murphy (D) became the Governor of New Jersey, replacing Gov. Chris Christie (R).

Governor, Virginia: Ralph Northam (D) won the race for governor against candidate Ed Gillespie (R). On Monday, President Donald Trump tweeted in support of Gillespie.

Mayor, New York City: Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) was re-elected for a second term as Mayor of New York City, gaining 66.5 percent support. Nicole Malliotakis (R) followed with 27.8 percent of the vote.  

Special US House Election, Utah: John Curtis (R), Provo city mayor, won the U.S. House of Representative seat for Utah’s Third Congressional District. He will fill the vacant seat in Washington left by Jason Chaffetz’s resignation.

Statewide ballot question, Maine: In Maine, voters decided to expand Medicare access, allowing almost 80,000 more individuals to become eligible for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Statewide ballot question, Ohio: Ohio voters decided against an initiative that would have limited prices for prescription drugs purchased by the state government to a maximum of what U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays for them. The New York Times reports this would have applied to purchases made through Medicaid.

Official election results will be certified by the Secretary of State on December 1. For more information about how state governments are structured, click here.

Additional source: The New York Times

Distortion Highlights

  • The Knife advocates for journalism that is fact-based and founded in critical thinking.
  • But sometimes the media uses or quotes flawed reasoning, which can be misleading if we don’t catch it.
  • What can you do? Develop a sharper eye to spot faulty reasoning! See some examples below.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Brutal

    The race has turned brutal in the closing weeks, with culture-war issues dominating the final stretch. (The Hill)

  • Titantic battle

    Voters headed to the polls in several states Tuesday to decide races that will determine not only bragging rights but also answers for dilemmas faced by both major parties as they head into a titanic battle for control of Congress in 2018. (LA Times)

  • Fierce assault

    Yet Northam’s effort to persuade voters to continue the policies of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been all but drowned out for weeks by a fierce assault by Gillespie on issues meant to inspire turnout by the voters who are more naturally allied with Trump than the establishment Republican candidate. (LA Times)

  • Incendiary

    ‘Northam pushed back on the incendiary arguments with less heated appeals on the economy, education and transportation, although he also took fire for an allied Latino group’s ad that implied Gillespie supporters were threatening young minority children. (LA Times)

  • Clout

    A Republican candidate who embraced Donald Trump’s combative campaign style tested the president’s political clout against the Democratic front-runner in Virginia’s race for governor on Tuesday, the main event in a series of U.S state and local races. (Reuters)

    Hard-fought Virginia governor’s race to test Trump’s clout (Reuters)

  • Hard-edged

    The Washington lobbyist and former Republican National Committee chairman used hard-edged ads to hit his Democratic rival, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, on divisive issues such as immigration, gang crime and Confederate statues. (Reuters)

  • Trump factor

    Election Day: Trump factor looms large in Virginia, New Jersey governor’s races (Fox News)

    The Trump factor looms large in the marquee Virginia gubernatorial race, where Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and his allies have churned out mailers and ads tying Republican rival Ed Gillespie to the Trump White House at every turn.  (Fox News)

  • Trump-all-the-time

    In the final stretch, Gillespie questioned whether the Democrats’ Trump-all-the-time strategy is a sound one. (Fox News)

  • Dog-whistle Politics

    Democrats have long criticized Gillespie’s focus on illegal immigration and protecting Confederate statues as dog-whistle politics, criticism that bubbled over into a controversial Latino Victory Fund ad that depicted a Gillespie supporter terrorizing Hispanic and Muslim children.  (The Hill)

  • Bellwether

    Northam: Virginia gov race is a ‘bellwether’ (The Hill)

    “Virginia will be the most important bellwether of what the party is doing in 2016,” said Keith Brannum, the campaign manager for Elizabeth Guzman, the Democratic candidate in one of several highly contested House of Delegates seats. (LA Times)

    “We are the bellwether, people are looking at us to see what direction we go in. They want a governor who has some fire in his belly, who will stand up to the detrimental policies coming out of Washington and someone who can take Virginia to the next level.” (Northam) (The Hill)

Critical thinking is key to scientific achievement, technological progress, problem-solving, and the general development of society and culture – and that’s why The Knife advocates for it in the media. One aspect of critical thinking is spotting potentially misleading implications or assumptions.

In the media, reporters can make such assumptions in their own writing, or they can cite public officials using them. There were many examples in Tuesday’s coverage of the Virginia election (we analyzed articles published before the results were released). Below, we examine a few examples and break down the implications and how they may include flawed reasoning.

Misleading implications in news reporting

The following are statements in a reporter’s own words that contain misleading implications or assumptions. (We’ve bolded the problem areas in the examples below.)

    1. The GOP candidate “tested the president’s political clout against the Democratic front-runner in Virginia’s race” (Reuters)

  • Implies: the Virginia outcome is an indicator of Trump’s power — or lack thereof — to influence local elections.

People choose candidates based on a variety of factors, not just because Trump supports one of the candidates. Reuters’ statement may exaggerate the president’s influence in determining the outcome.

    2. “The national importance of the Virginia race was underscored before dawn on election day, when President Trump… launched three tweets on behalf of Gillespie and sharply critical of Northam.” (Los Angeles Times)

  • Implies: Trump tweeting about something means it’s important to the nation.

The president has a lot of influence and his tweets often lead to debate or discussion, but just because he tweets about something doesn’t automatically mean it’s of “national importance.” (FYI, Trump has sent more than 2200 tweets this year so far.)

     3. “Democrats and Republicans alike are eyeing the off-year race [in Virginia]… as [an] indicator of the country’s mood a year before the midterm elections.” (The Hill) And, the vote “will determine… answers for dilemmas faced by both major parties as they head into a titanic battle for control of Congress in 2018.” (Los Angeles Times)

  • Implies: how people vote in a few state and local elections can be an accurate indicator of how the whole country feels about national politics, or how they’ll vote next year.

This is a generalization. The results of a few state and local elections don’t necessarily indicate voter sentiment for the country as a whole, or solve challenges the parties are facing for midterm elections.

Misleading implications by public officials

It may be useful for the news to quote politicians even when they use flawed or incomplete reasoning. But ideally, reporters would draw attention to these logical issues.

    1. “Trump… wrote on Twitter the state’s economy under [Virginia’s Governor] McAuliffe ‘has been terrible.’ ‘If you vote Ed Gillespie tomorrow, it will come roaring back!’” (Reuters)

  • This may oversimplify what causes economic growth.

Of course, a governor can affect his state’s economy to some degree, but Trump’s tweet may oversimplify a complex system. Trump doesn’t disclose on what assumption he’s basing his conclusion, but it might imply that the governor is the most important determinant of economic performance. All sorts of factors affect Virginia’s economy, from legislation and regulations, to consumer sentiment, employment and the national economy.

    2. “‘We watched a campaign in 2016 that was based on a lot of hatred, bigotry and discrimination and fear. So there is a lot of attention on Virginia right now,’ Northam said to reporters at a campaign field office in Richmond.” (The Hill)

  • Assumes the 2016 campaign was indeed based on hatred and bigotry.

This may or may not be true, but it’s hard to determine because these terms are somewhat subjective and we don’t know what Northam is basing his opinion on.

  • Implies people are paying attention to Virginia because of the apparent hatred and bigotry last year.

This is a non sequitur — Northam’s second sentence doesn’t necessarily follow from the first. In order to make this work logically, we’d have to assume other premises that aren’t provided.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 72% Spun

  • 74% Spun

  • 79% Spun

  • 79% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The Hill

“The [gubernatorial] race has turned brutal in the closing weeks, with culture-war issues dominating the final stretch.”

Gubernatorial candidates in Virginia campaigned in the weeks leading up to the election. Independent groups ran ads.

Los Angeles Times

“Voters headed to the polls in several states Tuesday to decide races that will determine… answers for dilemmas faced by both major parties as they head into a titanic battle for control of Congress in 2018.”

Voters headed to the polls in several states Tuesday. Control of Congress will be decided in the 2018 election.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

[Virginia’s gubernatorial election] is the first competitive statewide election since President Trump’s inauguration. (The Hill)


The article doesn’t say what makes Virginia’s election more “competitive” than other elections held this year.

Consider this: in May, Montana held a statewide election to fill Ryan Zinke’s congressional seat. Republican candidate Greg Gianforte won against Democratic candidate Rob Quist. Prior to the election, Politico referred to it as “the latest example of a tight race in a traditional GOP stronghold.” People may consider Montana’s so-called “tight race” to also be just as or more “competitive” than the Virginia election.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Unclear about what the “Trump factor” is, and how it “looms large.”

The President did comment on the race, but Fox doesn’t say how Trump is a factor. It could imply that Trump is one of the biggest factors in the state elections. What about others — like the candidates themselves?

Assumes Trump’s “impact” can be measured by a state election.

If a Republican won, would that mean Trump had a large “impact?” While his comments may have some influence, there are other factors, including whether voters support the political views of each candidate.

Doesn’t say how it’s a “test” of the nation’s “mood,” or what that means.

In addition to implying Trump’s win will influence this vote, CNN draws a connection between Tuesday’s state and local elections and the national “political mood.” Is there a connection between the two, and if so, what is it?

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • The voting results in Virginia are a “bellwether” for the outcome of the 2018 election.
  • The election is a “test” for President Donald Trump.
  • The Democratic candidates are better than the Republicans; the GOP and Trump are doing a bad job (The Hill, Reuters, L.A. Times). Or, the Democrats are playing dirty, and the Republican candidates are a better choice (Fox News).
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • One state election may not reflect how voters feel about national politics, and might not indicate what will happen in midterm elections next year.
  • Voters may base their choices on their own political beliefs, the candidates’ platforms, party affiliation, or any number of factors. Not all elections reflect what voters think or feel about Trump.
  • Favoring one candidate or party over another (by citing a disproportionate number of opinions for or against one party) isn’t objective journalism. It may indicate media bias.