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Friday, July 21, 2006

The Headline Expectations Game; or, a Lesson in Making Doyle Look Bad

In the last couple of weeks, I've been teaching a little bit of journamilism with some students at Marquette's Upward Bound program: This week, they've been writing op-eds, and last week, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Bob Purvis came out talk about what his job as the night police reporter entailed. But we never talked about headlines.

Which might be too bad, since more people read headlines than anything else in the paper--certainly more than the articles below them. A good headline can tell a whole story, though, so sometimes it's not the worst thing that no one reads the article. A bad--or misleading, or biased--headline can also tell a story, often a very different one from the story attached to it.

Take two headlines from two consecutive days' worth of Journal Sentinels: Campaign funds tallied today: Doyle expected to top Green in fund raising and Green raises more than Doyle this year: But governor is still sitting on bigger war chest.

One of the classic blogosphere tropes is outrage, feigned or real, that the media is biased or partisan against candidates or otherwise out to get us. I don't think that is usually true; I think more often that the media just isn't always as good as it could be.

And this headline story, I think, illustrates that point.

Below that first headline about the "tallies," which ran in yesterday's paper, was a story about what was known and expected at the time the article was written, which was, as you might guess from the headline, before the two candidates for governor submitted their campaign finance reports. If all you read was the headline, which indicates that Democrat Jim Doyle was expected to out-fundraise Republican Mark Green, you would think that the consensus or conventional wisdom or position of the experts cited in the article was that Doyle would raise more money in the reporting period than Green. However, the article says nothing of the sort, and even hints at the opposite:
By all accounts, when campaign finance reports are filed today, U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R-Green Bay) will have less money available than the man he wants to replace, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

The question is how much less. That will be among the things watched today by political analysts, pundits and--of course--the opposing campaign.

Since the last reports were filed in January, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker dropped out of the GOP race and a state procurement official was convicted in federal court of steering a state travel contract to a Doyle campaign donor.

"Once Walker got out of the race, you'd expect most of the Republican money would be flowing (to Green)," said Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. "If Doyle has raised substantially more money, that would not be a good sign for Green." [. . .] With Walker in the race, Republicans were splitting their money between him and Green.

Combined, the two raised more money than Doyle did in the second half of 2005, $1.3 million to $1.1 million.
I won't get into all the reasons why Walker and Green might have been able to collectively outraise Doyle in the last half of 2005, but the article, neither in the quoted bit here nor after that, never finds anyone to say that the trend would change, and that Democrats would out-contribute Republicans for the first half of 2006. Even that opening sentence doesn't say it--all it says is that Doyle would still have more money in the warchest than Green and, given his head-start on fundraising (one of the reasons the flow of cash has slowed in the last year), that shouldn't have been a surprise.

But, to be clear, the headline explicitly said, "Doyle expected to top Green in fund raising" for the reporting period, not in funds available.

Maybe, you might be thinking, I'm splitting hairs, and I should just get off my horse and go back to bed. But I don't think so. See, I think the headline game here is an expectations one: With the first story, despite no expert, pundit, or campaign official in the article saying so, we have the expectation that Doyle will outraise Green.

In the second headline--which completely and accurately reflects what the story below it in today's paper says--we find that that is not true, and Green outraised Doyle by some $59,000, or about 3.5% more than Doyle.

But now everyone who reads the headlines, or who reads the stories without noticing that they sometimes contradict the headlines, can shake their heads and wonder what's happening to Jim Doyle. "Wasn't he supposed to raise more money than Green?" they can ask. "I thought he was expected to do much better," they can say.

And, voilà, Jim Doyle's campaign is in trouble, all thanks to the headline expectations game.

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