On Sunday evening, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) presidential campaign released more than 30 years of financial information related to her work as a corporate lawyer and consultant. These new documents come in addition to the 11 years of tax returns released earlier this year.
At first glance, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the new information. The new documents detail more than 50 cases Warren worked on during her time as a law professor, dating back to 1985. In total, Warren made more than $1.9 million between the first case listed and the final one in 2009, or around $80,000 per year.
A number of mainstream media outlets adopted the most sensational possible framing of this story.
The Washington Post, Politico, and ABC News were among the outlets that ran headlines referencing the total amount of money Warren brought in through these cases without providing any clues to the timespan.
Others, like CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and even Fox News highlighted that the $1.9 million was earned over three decades.
Though both groups of headlines are true, the second set of headlines is a more accurate representation of the truth. Another truthful framing would be to break it down by a yearly average -- which comes out to be just under $56,000 if you’re counting from 1985 and 2019, or roughly $80,000 per year if you’re looking at this from the perspective of the years between her first (1985) and final (2009) listed case.
How journalists represent data can affect what audiences take away from their work.
In 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker confronts Obi-Wan Kenobi about his father. Obi-Wan told Luke that Darth Vader killed his father, when in fact, Darth Vader was his father. Faced with his own misdirection, Obi-Wan responded, “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view. … You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
The same is true of how we receive information in the real world. Headlines touting Warren’s $1.9 million earnings without additional context are almost certainly meant to evoke a sense of shock in readers. Noting the average of $80,000 per year -- or $56,000 per year -- just doesn’t have the same ring to it and is much less sensational.
There’s a reason Lotto and Powerball jackpots list the largest possible number a grand prize winner could theoretically get (the Powerball jackpot is currently $140 million) if they choose to receive payments over a span of 29 years, even though the most someone can possibly get in a single payment is significantly less ($95.4 million). There’s a reason gas stations charge $2.499 per gallon instead of $2.50 or a retailer sells a couch for $499 rather than $500.
When similar concepts are applied to the world of news, it’s called “spin.” Politicians palter all the time, and it’s their hope that journalists will unquestionably accept the framing they’re given, even if it’s misleading. One major example of such spinning came in 2017 and 2018 when Republicans were trying to move their health care bills through Congress. Though their bills all weakened the pre-existing conditions protections provided under current law, the party claimed that House Republicans wanted “to ensure Americans with pre-existing conditions are protected.” This was a claim that, while technically true in a twisted way that would make Obi-Wan proud, didn’t hold up to scrutiny. As the New York Times wrote:
Technically, the deal would still prevent insurers from denying coverage to people with a history of illness. But without community rating, health plans would be free to charge those patients as much as they wanted.
Headlines matter, and news outlets have a responsibility to make sure that they’re more than just technically true.
By this point, news outlets must understand that the overwhelming majority of people who see one of their headlines will not click on the article itself. Even then, information might be buried. For instance, it’s not until the sixth paragraph of the Washington Post article about Warren’s income from corporate clients that it mentions that the cases it reflects “stretch over more than three decades.”
If these outlets view journalism solely through the lens of profits and loss, the only incentive is to drive traffic, even if it means using misleading yet technically accurate headlines. But if outlets recognize that they play a deeper and more important function, they need to take action on the scourge of misleading headlines and sensationalism.