In 2012, then-public editor for The New York Times Margaret Sullivan called for her paper’s reporting on strict voter ID laws to state the established truth that in-person voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. Almost 10 years later, the Times continues to fall short. Worse, the Times’ failure to make it clear that systemic voter fraud is a Republican fantasy has spread to the newspaper's coverage of other voter suppression and election subversion tactics.
A new Media Matters study looked at the New York Times coverage of a wave of recent legislation proposed by state Republicans who purportedly want to ensure “election integrity” across the country, from Georgia to Texas. We found that 25 out of 62 articles (40%) reporting on these voter suppression and election subversion tactics from March 1 to August 13 did not state in their “own voice” that there is no widespread voter fraud, as Sullivan repeatedly recommended during her tenure.
Instead, the Times frequently fell into the “false balance” trap -- the practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story despite a determining truth -- an approach its own public editor condemned, as “journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.”
Sullivan was right. In the wake of former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was corrupted by voter fraud, the corresponding Republican bills presented under this false premise, and a Republican base lost in this disinformation, the Times’ retreat into false balance when reporting on voter suppression and election subversion is even less appropriate now than it was a decade ago. The Times’ failure on this front is even more noticeable when contrasted with its many articles that do meet the best practices of explaining the lack of significant voter fraud in this country.
In March, the Georgia state legislature approved a set of voter suppression and election subversion tactics, and afterward similar bills started appearing in state legislatures across the country. As the Times began reporting on this trend, its articles semi-frequently debunked the notion that these laws protect against existing voter fraud:
Like nearly all of the Republicans involved in the party's voter integrity efforts, Mr. Gruters declined to characterize Mr. Biden's victory as legitimate, despite there being no evidence of widespread fraud and multiple state audits reaffirming the results. [The New York Times, 3/23/21]
G.O.P. lawmakers have been fueled by a party base that has largely embraced Mr. Trump's false claims of widespread voter fraud and a stolen 2020 election. [The New York Times, 4/29/21]
Voter fraud is extremely rare in the United States, and officials in every state and at the federal level affirmed that the 2020 election was secure. [The New York Times, 5/13/21]
Unfortunately, these unequivocal statements about the voter fraud lie were not routine at the beginning of the study period, and they are becoming even less frequent now. Since the beginning of July, this context has been left out of well over half (62%) of relevant articles, a trend that is especially worrisome as the U.S. Senate is expected to return to voting rights legislation in September.
On July 12, for example, the Times reported on the dispute over the voter suppression bill currently being pushed by Texas Republicans:
Hundreds of Texans flocked to the Capitol over the weekend for the committee hearings on the companion voting bills being pushed by Republicans, part of a national effort by the party to impose new restrictions on state election systems. Republicans say the restructuring is necessary to improve voter integrity, but Democrat-aligned opposition forces are fighting what they call an unprecedented campaign to suppress voting.
Nowhere in the article was there the sort of “single clarifying sentence” that explains the Republican argument is based on a lie.
When voting rights returns to the top of the news cycle in the fall, hopefully the Times will return to the contextual standards it more often upheld at the beginning of the year and unequivocally debunk lies about voter fraud in every article on voter suppression and election subversion it publishes. As we continue to deal with the aftermath of Trump’s failed coup and the stirrings of another, Sullivan’s advice is more relevant than ever: “The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership -- and the democracy -- will be.”
Media Matters searched New York Times articles in the Factiva newspaper database for any variation of the term “vote” within ten words of any of the terms “ballot,” “absentee,” “early,” “ID,” “identification,” “legislation,” “bill,” “law,” “registration,” “fraud,” “hours,” “precinct,” “machine,” “registrar,” “purge,” “postage,” or “access” or any variation of any of the terms “suppress,” “restrict,” “dropbox,” “mail,” “poll,” “roll,” “24-hour,” or “drive-thru” from March 1, 2021, the day Georgia House Republicans passed a sweeping voter suppression bill, through August 13, 2021.
We included any articles about voter suppression or election subversion, which we defined as articles that mentioned a specific voter suppression or election subversion tactic. We defined voter suppression and election subversion tactics in four broad categories:
- Making mail-in or absentee voting more difficult.
- Making in-person voting more difficult.
- Making voter registration more difficult.
- Making election subversion easier.
In the first category, we counted tactics that met any of the following criteria:
- Making it harder to receive mail-in or absentee ballots.
- Making it harder to turn in mail-in or absentee ballots.
- Adding new strict ID requirements for mail-in or absentee ballots.
In the second category, we counted tactics that met any of the following criteria:
- Adding new strict ID requirements for in-person voting.
- Shortening the early voting period.
- Shortening Election Day hours.
- Banning food and water for voters on line.
- Expanding the power of partisan poll watchers.
- Reducing polling locations.
In the third category, we counted tactics that met any of the following criteria:
- Making it harder to register to vote.
- Making it easier to conduct registration purges.
In the fourth category, we counted tactics that met any of the following criteria:
- Permitting partisan punishment of election officials.
- Increasing state power over federal elections.
- Making it easier to overturn unfavorable election results.
We then reviewed each article for whether any described voter suppression or election subversion tactic was put into proper context, which we defined as at least one sentence clarifying that claims of widespread voter fraud are false.