The Morning After: Covering Congress

The results are in: Americans headed to the polls yesterday, and re-elected Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America. The victory was decisive – 303 Electoral College votes to Mitt Romney’s 206 – and earned Obama “four more years” in the White house.

Months of campaigning and millions of dollars later, the president is going back to Washington, D.C. The logical question is: What happens next? How does Obama turn his attention from the campaign trail back to the Beltway? More specifically, how will he reach out to members of the incoming Congress?

Amidst the feverish excitement of the presidential election, it is easy to lose track of the so-called “down ballot” races. But Obama was not the only winner – and Romney was not the only loser – last night. With some races yet to be called, it looks like at least 10 new senators and more than 65 new representatives will join the 113th Congress, which will see Democrats controlling the Senate and Republicans holding the House.

So, how are the major media outlets covering the incoming Congress? In particular, how are they covering Congress online? Take a look at the websites of some of the country’s top national newspapers: The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

Note that the Times and the Journal have lowered their paywalls for the election, offering free access to their online content for 24 hours. For the Times, that meant free access from 5 p.m. Tuesday until 5 p.m. today. At the Journal, the paywall went down at 6 p.m. yesterday and is expected be back up at 6 p.m. tonight. The Post does not typically charge readers to access online content.

But back to their coverage of Congress.

On the Times homepage, a banner below the masthead but above the headline (even old-school journalists can recognize this as prime real estate, “above the fold” placement) shows a simple bar graph for both the House and Senate, with each graph divided blue and red for the numbers of Democrats and Republicans, respectively, elected to each house. A faint gray caption shows the net gains and losses for each party in each house (Democrats gained one seat in both the House and Senate, while Republicans lost two slots in each). Clicking on either the “House” or “Senate” brings the user to a “big board” that breaks down the results further, dividing races across a spectrum ranging from “Democrats expected to win easily” to “Republicans expected to win easily” with each party “expected to win narrowly” and “toss-up states” in the middle. The visualizations are clear and concise, offering users a snapshot of how the political parties performed nationally while also presenting the specific results of individual races. It’s worth noting that one can still look at the results in the form of a classic red state, blue state map, if he or she so desires.

A red-and-blue map is front-and-center over at the Journal, where under the headline “Tough Loss Leaves GOP at a Crossroads,” the web producers have placed a county-by-county cartography of the electoral results. The elegant interactive is full of valuable information: for starters, users can understand the results in a historical context (“redder” than 2008/2004, “bluer” than 2008/2004, increased turnout since 2008/2004, etc.). But the map focuses exclusively on the presidential contests, and therefore has little to say about down-ballot races. For that, it seems as though the Journal team has little more than bar graphs that are near-identical to those found on the Times‘s site. Though they do have stipple portraits of many of the candidates, a nice touch for Luddites such as myself.

The Post‘s homepage is certainly the most cluttered of the three, full of blinking video advertisements and distracting sidebars. (Although maybe that’s the price one pays for no paywall?) Like the Times and the Journal, the Post also has bar charts showing the Congressional results. The only aspect setting it apart is the illustrations of a blue elephant and a red donkey – seriously. Otherwise, the visualization is near-identical to those of the competitors. Clicking through to pages exclusively dedicated to the House and Senate, however, one sees that the Post has set up charts and maps not unlike those of the Times‘s “big board.” But the Post has the advantage here: their visualization is richer in content, complete with county-level results, a search bar to look up specific state races and an easy-to-use widget for sharing on social media platforms.

7 thoughts on “The Morning After: Covering Congress

  1. Rhonda Colvin

    Nice topic Lauren. I’m interested in reading more. Right after the election, the “fiscal cliff” was immediately deemed the next hot topic for Washington media, however, do you think the issues surrounding Patreaus’s resignation have shifted our focus from that?

  2. Lauren Fedor Post author

    Thanks for commenting, Rhonda. I agree that the “fiscal cliff” is a pressing issue not only for Washington, but also for the country as a whole. But you are also right in pointing out that the issues regarding Petraeus’s resignation have stolen the media spotlight in recent days. And it’s easy to understand why: Sex! Spies! Scandal! I think it will be interesting to see how the story plays out, and whether it fades away in the week ahead. After all, taxing and spending and Congressional back-and-forth may not be nearly as salacious as the real-life soap surrounding Petraeus, but the potential effects of the so-called cliff (drastically higher taxes and lower spending) could seriously damage the country’s economy for years to come.

  3. Maria Paula Carvalho

    Nice blog Lauren. Mainly for those interested in learning more about American politics.
    You have a new reader.

  4. Valerie Hopkins

    Great blog, Lauren! I am glad I can count on you to watch the transition. I too am hoping that you can help break down this annoying Fiscal Cliff. I want to know who coined the term and why has it become such a buzzword?

  5. Lauren Fedor Post author

    Thanks, Valerie! I agree that the fiscal cliff is annoying – both in practice and in terminology (can’t we think of something better?) Maybe a future post will talk about the term itself…or review a handful of the dozens of “explainers” out there trying to break down what’s at stake if Congress fails to come to a consensus. In the meantime, I read that the AP Style Guide is encouraging journalists to use “fiscal cliff” or so-called fiscal cliff on first reference, and then drop the quotes or so-called on subsequent mentions :)

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