STUDY: NY Times Has Mostly Ignored Public Editor's Urging To Report Lack Of Voter Fraud In Voter ID Stories

››› ››› JESSICA TORRES

The New York Times has continued to largely ignore the repeated advice of its public editor to report that the type of in-person voter fraud that strict voter ID laws are supposed to prevent is virtually nonexistent. In the year since Margaret Sullivan last publicly asked the paper's editors to curb "false balance" in their "he said, she said" coverage of the voter ID issue, The Times gave a free pass to claims of voter fraud in 60 percent of its stories. That's an increase of more than 10 percent over the number of stories between 2012-2014 that contained unsupported claims that voter ID is needed to stop voter impersonation, according to a previous Media Matters study.

Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan Has Long Argued Against Presenting "False Balance" In Stories About Voter ID And In-Person Voter Impersonation -- The Fraud These Laws Supposedly Prevent

Sullivan, September 2012: When Reporting On Voter Fraud And Voter ID Laws, The Times Should "State Established Truths." As far back as 2012, Sullivan was criticizing The Times for what she called the "false balance" of "he said, she said"-style reporting. The Times' coverage of Republican-led campaigns to implement strict voter ID laws -- despite what national reporter Ethan Bronner characterized as "no known evidence of in-person voter fraud" -- was offered as an example of when "[j]ournalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe." From Sullivan's September 15, 2012 "Public Editor's Blog":

Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said The Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.

"I hope it's not The Times's policy to move this matter back into the 'he said she said' realm," he wrote.

The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. "There's a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides," he said. One side says there's not significant voter fraud; the other side says there's not significant voter suppression.

"It's not our job to litigate it in the paper," Mr. Sifton said. "We need to state what each side says."

Mr. Bronner agreed. "Both sides have become very angry and very suspicious about the other," he said. "The purpose of this story was to step back and look at both sides, to lay it out." While he agreed that there was "no known evidence of in-person voter fraud," and that could have been included in this story, "I don't think that's the core issue here."

On other subjects, The Times has made clear progress in avoiding false balance.

[...]

It ought to go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway: 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.

The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership -- and the democracy -- will be. [The New York Times, 9/15/12]

Sullivan, September 2014: Discussion Of Voter Fraud In Voter ID Stories Need "A Single Clarifying Sentence." In September of 2014, Sullivan again argued that The Times should avoid presenting a false equivalence in articles about contentious subjects when "significant evidence" of disproving facts exist, and again cited as an example claims of voter fraud used as an excuse to pass restrictive voter ID laws in states across the country. From her September 2, 2014 column:

Two recent articles on voting disputes would have benefitted greatly from a single clarifying sentence -- one that would have cut through the "he said, she said" language that so many readers understandably tell me they dislike.

In each case, The Times described the dispute over efforts to require extra identification for voters. In an article titled "Getting Ferguson Majority to Show Its Clout at Polls," one passage read as follows:

"Republican lawmakers, who dominate the Missouri legislature, have repeatedly pushed for a measure requiring photo identification for voters at polling places, saying it is needed to combat fraud. Democrats have called those efforts an attempt to discourage minority voters."

Describing the article as "otherwise excellent," a reader, Robert Baillie, wrote:

"The next sentence should instead have been something along the lines of 'the evidence shows that such fraud is virtually non-existent.' This issue should not be treated as a matter of 'he said, she said.' There is evidence on this issue. You should have reported it."

Other readers were upset by an article in today's Times. It, too, lacked that kind of statement of established fact that Mr. Baillie suggested.

[...]

I've written about this several times, and I feel strongly about it. But the point apparently bears repeating: When there's significant evidence on a hot topic -- whether it's voting fraud or the reality of climate change -- The Times should not shy away from stating it, simply and clearly. [The New York Times, 9/2/14]

Sullivan, October 2014: I See "Some Progress" But Balanced Reporting "Doesn't Happen Every Time." In October, 2014, Sullivan acknowledged that The Times seemed to have taken some of her advice about not presenting a false balance in stories where the two sides aren't factually comparable. She again cited voter ID stories as an example of the value of adding a "clarifying" sentence, explaining, "There has been virtually no in-person voter fraud documented in the country." Yet while she saw "some progress," Sullivan added that this type of balanced reporting "doesn't happen every time it might" -- where The Times states "established tru[th] in its own voice rather than give equal weight to unequal views." From her October 18, 2014 column:

FALSE BALANCE Readers often let me know that they don't appreciate "he said, she said" reporting that leaves them in the dark about what to believe. Here, I see some progress. It seems to be semi-regular practice these days, on some subjects, for The Times to state established trust in its own voice rather than give equal weight to unequal views. For example, a Sept. 5 story on an Ohio federal court ruling included this unattributed sentence: "There has been virtually no in-person voter fraud documented in the country." This kind of thing doesn't happen every time it might (it was largely missing in more recent stories about voter identification laws in Wisconsin and Texas) and I continue to hear complaints. [The New York Times, 10/18/14]

In Fact, A Major Study Found Virtually Zero Evidence Of Voter Fraud From 2000-2014...

Wash. Post: Study Shows That Only 0.0000031% Of Votes Over 15 Years Involved Type Of "Fraud ID Laws Are Designed To Stop." Loyola University Law School professor Justin Levitt conducted research that found only 31 possible instances of in-person voter impersonation in general, primary, special, and municipal elections across the country from 2000 to 2014. Writing in 2014 on the Washington Post's Wonkblog, Levitt said:

Election fraud happens. But ID laws are not aimed at the fraud you'll actually hear about. Most current ID laws (Wisconsin is a rare exception) aren't designed to stop fraud with absentee ballots (indeed, laws requiring ID at the polls push more people into the absentee system, where there are plenty of real dangers). Or vote buying. Or coercion. Or fake registration forms. Or voting from the wrong address. Or ballot box stuffing by officials in on the scam. In the 243-page document that Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel filed on Monday with evidence of allegedly illegal votes in the Mississippi Republican primary, there were no allegations of the kind of fraud that ID can stop.

Instead, requirements to show ID at the polls are designed for pretty much one thing: people showing up at the polls pretending to be somebody else in order to each cast one incremental fake ballot. This is a slow, clunky way to steal an election. Which is why it rarely happens. [Wonkblog, The Washington Post, 8/6/14, via Media Matters]

...But NY Times Still "Gave Equal Weight To Unequal Views" About Voter Fraud In 9 Out Of 15 Stories On Voter ID

Unsupported Voter Fraud Claims Got A Free Pass In 60 Percent of NY Times' Stories. A Nexis search by Media Matters of original Times reporting between the date of NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan's last admonition on September 4, 2014 and September 3, 2015 revealed that her advice to the paper to always mention the virtual nonexistence of in-person voter impersonation in voter ID reporting was not followed more than half the time:

NY Times Coverage

Number Of NY Times' Stories On Voter ID That Didn't Report Lack Of Alleged Fraud Has Increased

Previously, Media Matters found that The Times gave unsupported voter fraud claims a free pass in 46 percent of its stories between September 15, 2012 and September 3, 2014.

Methodology

Media Matters conducted a Nexis search for vot! w/15 fraud in New York Times' news articles between September 4, 2014 and September 3, 2015. Editorials, op-eds, and blogs were excluded, as were international examples and any discussions of voter fraud not directly related to voter ID.

Articles that discussed the prevention of voter fraud as the justification for voter ID laws but did not include reporting on the evidence that in-person voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent were counted as an example of false balance.

Posted In
Diversity & Discrimination, Elections, Inclusion Matters
Network/Outlet
The New York Times
Stories/Interests
Hispanic Media Project
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.