Getting Political: How News Websites Shaped Audience Perceptions of the 2008 Election Results

November 16, 2008

The Morning After:  This blog examines the home pages of six leading news organizations (CNN, ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS and PBS) on the morning of November 5, 2008.  Screen shots of each website from approximately 9:30am the morning after the election are followed by in-depth analysis of the messages conveyed by those pages.



November 12, 2008


Main Headline:

CNN’s headline, a sentence pulled from President-elect Obama’s victory speech, emphasizes the notion that Obama’s victory is really a victory for the American people.  As  you will see from the other news sites, CNN is the only site to emphasize this aspect of Obama’s win.  The other news sites focus on Obama himself.

In the image (which we will analyze in more detail shortly), Obama seems to be speaking directly to the people in front of him, so the use of “your” could mean his supporters.  He could be saying it is a victory for all of the people who supported his candidacy and actively worked to get him elected.  “Your” could also be referring to the larger group of American voters who gave him a 53% to 46% victory; the “your” could also refer to the American people as a whole, even those who did not vote for him; in other words, he could be trying to suggest (rather pretentiously) “My presidency is going to be good for every American.” The choice of “your” in the sentence allows whoever is hearing/seeing it to envision him/herself as the one to whom Obama is referring.

The headline is in all lower case, which make grammatical sense; because it is a direct quote, only the first letter of the sentence should be capitalized.  The lower case words also have the effect of emphasizing a kind of commonness, perhaps paralleling the notion of the victory for the common people.

Main Image:

The photo is a close-up of President-elect Obama on election night smiling (in gratitude?) and pointing toward the crowd. A close look at the senator’s eyes suggests that he may be looking at someone in particular.  The expression is more intimate than the images from the other news sites.  The image of Obama pointing to the crowd matches the headline in which he directs the attention away from himself and toward the American people.  There is an American flag in the background, which seems appropriate as President-elect Obama accepts his place as the next president of the United States. 

Graphics/Message Bar:

Shows electoral vote (not popular vote).  While the popular vote indicated about a 7 million vote lead for Senator Obama on the morning of November 5, the electoral count (335-163) makes Obama’s win look even more impressive.  Why not show the popular vote too?  Possibly because the popular vote is less important to the election’s outcome or possibly because CNN wants to make Obama’s victory look more resounding than it was.

The numbers graphic also shows Democrats won house and senate with check marks next to the exact Democratic counts (including a check mark next to Senator Biden’s name in his race for the Delaware senate).  This graphic seems to emphasize the sweeping nature of the Democratic wins on election night.

Miscellaneous Items:

There is a link to a video of “President Bush on the election.”  None of the other sites mention President Bush.  Considering the president’s very low approval rating, the inclusion of his comments on CNN’s site could indicate a bias against the president; on the other hand, one could argue that CNN is generous in offering President Bush space on its page (and in his own words).

There is also a link to additional video clips of “celebrations and analysis,” which add to the overall celebratory/congratulatory tone of this website.


November 12, 2008



Main Image:



The picture used by PBS was either a stock photo or photo from a time other than the night of the election.  You can see that Obama’s tie is a different color and that the flag behind him is facing a different direction than they were at Grant Park.  It is also obviously a posed photo rather than the candid shots taken by other media.  In the photo he is gripping the mic, not speaking into it, which suggests that he is listening or looking at his audience rather than addressing them.  The camera angle is lower, as if Obama is “above” his audience, more like a dictator pose than a leader who is among the people.  The picture shows him with a serious and uncertain look on his face this might be displaying compassion or uneasiness because of lack of experience.






The headline for PBS’ website is “Change has come..historic victory”.  This is the only website to state that it is more of a historic event than a current political event.  The “change” in this headline leans towards a meaning of change in our society by having the first African-American president elect.  This is also the one website that displays its information as if it is more of a historical event than just breaking news of who the new president elect is.  There are no statistics or numbers about how the race went, but simply that Obama won.  This allows the site to be more subjective, but yet it does a good job of telling both sides by having McCain’s concession speech available in its entirety right below the headline and uses a quote from him within the summary.  Giving the reader resources, PBS does a good job of not taking any sides and allows the viewer to do as he/she pleases when looking at the speeches or listening to them.






In the write-up of the election, there are a few interesting things to note.  First of all, the article seems to be written before the official word was ever given.  Words like “projected” and “claims” are used.  Also you can see an ad for “election coverage at 9 pm”, obviously from the night before.  The other websites have clear times of the site being updated, most of them by the minute.  There were also a few other words they used that we felt were misleading, or an interesting choice for them.  Saying “sweeping” victory without showing any numbers causes the reader to assume that it was a landslide, but yet is unable to see viable proof.  They also make an interesting comment by saying that Obama is “America’s first black leader”…umm, doesn’t every city have a street named after someone who already was a “black leader”?  They did not choose to say president..why?  The page also does not speak very much about the senate race, even though it could be a huge deal (no numbers) and makes it sound as if the democrats failed by not getting 60 seats. 



CBS News

November 12, 2008


Main Image:

This picture that CBS chose to use is from election night, and Obama has a huge smile on his face showing the excitement and happiness of his victory.  There are two flags in the background, but they are not as prominent as in other adds.  However, it seems as if the picture is less staged with the flags hanging naturally in the background. Obama is waving to  the crowd which is similar to the pictures other news websites included.  The wave seems to be a sign of gratitude to his supporters.  Obama is not looking into the camera but seems to be making eye contact with one specific person or a group of people which is a much more intimate expression.  This intimate eye contact portrays him as someone who will listen to the people.


“Barack Obama Makes History” is focusing on the historical aspect of this election.  The headline looks at the fact that Obama made history by being elected, instead of looking at what history he might make as president.

Sub Heading:

The subtitle, like the headline, focuses on the election as the change as opposed to what he will do as president.  The term “has come” is used which seems to say the “change” Obama promised has already come as opposed to what changes he will make in our country in the following four years.  The change that has come appears to be that we have elected the first black president, but it could also be a change in policy, especially since it emphasizes that the first black president is also a Democrat.  This line seems to make a statement that the first black president wouldn’t come from the Republican party, or so CBS wants the public to believe.


There is a link to hear President Bush speak on the election.  No other news station mentions this, but this is important since the disapproval of George Bush was a major factor in Obama’s victory.

Katie Couric’s picture is right next to the main image, promoting her coverage of the election and advertising for the station.

ABC News

November 12, 2008


Main Image:

The picture that ABC chose shows a close-up candid shot of Obama, with light shining on his face.  He is smiling, as if he is looking ahead to a bright future.  The flag in the background is much bigger than other pictures and fills the entire background space, showing a strong sense of patriotism.  The title Mr. President is used, although he will not be Mr. President until January.  The tile is respectful, but the font almost makes the picture look like it is from a movie.  This picture is celebratory, but also could be painting an unrealistic, Hollywood picture of the president.  The picture that they chose to use, does not even appear to have been taken from the night of the election.  Why did they choose an older picture?  Did they like the lighting better and worked more towards the effect they were looking to create?  Did they not have enough representation to capture the right shot that night? Maybe they chose a picture from a different time to emphasize the road ahead as opposed to the road to the White House.


The headline for ABC simply states, Mr. President, is focusing on the future and Obama’s presidency.  It is important to note what is missing.  There is no mention of a victory, the historical aspect of his election, or the idea of change that was such an integral part of his campaign.  

Sub Headline:

The headline for the article that is shown above the picture is looking ahead to Obama’s choice for the Chief of Staff position.  This again shows ABC’s focus on the future and Obama’s actions as president as opposed to what happened on the campaign trail and in the election.  ABC also advertises for themselves by saying “ABC has learned.” They are making sure that readers know that ABC was the first to learn this breaking news.  It is important to note that there are no numbers listed for electoral votes, popular votes, or Senate and House and victories.  However, other news station presented the numbers as a “landslide” or only portraying the electoral votes (which show a much larger Obama victory).  ABC does not use the numbers to exaggerate the Obama victory like other sources. It is clear that ABC has moved ahead as opposed to looking at the election victory.  There are also no links to speeches by either Obama or McCain directly linked from this page.


November 12, 2008



Main Heading:

The headline from MSNBC is noticeably different than that of the others we analyzed. The first thing that we observed was its format. Through the use of an abnormally large font size, bold print, and all capital letters, this headline virtually shouts at the reader in a not so pleasant way. The phrase itself, “How He Did It,” is written in the past tense implying that the president elect has already succeeded in realizing his ambition. It intimates that Obama’s journey is concluding rather than just beginning and that winning the election was an “end” rather than a means to an end.

Another differentiator of this page is that both the subheading and the main heading portray Obama’s success as an individual achievement rather than the collective success of Obama, his campaign organization, and the Democratic Party overall.


Main Image: 


We also noted that the MSNBC photo was the only one that featured Obama with his wife and two daughters. This stood out to us since, based on the headline, we expected to see a close up head shot rather than the full body family image chosen. This photo depicts the Obama family with each parent holding a daughter’s hand protectively with the other hand held up high acknowledging the crowd. The choice of color coordinated outfits, including the stripe in Obama’s tie, indicates that much care and preparation was made when choosing how to present the family as they stood on stage together. There is also an array of American flags waiving in the backdrop. This image lends a sense of comfort and familiarity to the reader. It suggests to the reader that the Obamas are an ordinary middle class American family. 


Message Bar:

Moving to the message bar along the top of the page, a distinctive check mark is placed next to the democratic electoral votes emphasizing the large margin of victory of Obama over McCain.  The outcome of the popular vote reflects a considerably smaller margin of victory and, in a reduced overall layout, is squeezed in between the electoral results and the democratic congressional results.


Sub Headings:


The subheading quotes the New York Times on the competency of the Obama campaign stating that it was marked by organization and discipline. Below and off to the side is another sub headline in undersized print quoting Newsweek with the question, “How will history judge McCain’s campaign?” The choice of the term “judge” carries a negative connotation and implies an uncertainty as to the competency of the McCain campaign. By previously affirming that Obama’s journey was marked as organized and disciplined and then questioning how McCain’s will be judged MSNBC, implies a contrast between the two placing a much more positive spin on Obama and his democratic organization.


A final subheading is placed directly below the Newsweek quote and in much larger type. It proclaims that barriers have been shattered in this election. One would expect this section to address the fact that an African American has been elected President which was certainly a barrier shattering event. Yet, the sentence below speaks only to the fact that Obama beat McCain by more than 7,000,000 votes with no mention of his ethnicity other than a vague reference through the use of the term “historic choice.”    





Fox News

November 12, 2008


The Main Headline: 

Unlike the other headlines from the morning after the election that celebrate the moment or emphasize Obama’s achievement or path to victory, Fox News’ headline “Tough Road Ahead” looks toward the future and emphasizes the difficulties facing the new president.  In addition, “Tough Road Ahead” could be read in at least two different ways:  as a tough road ahead for the incoming president or a tough road ahead for the people who didn’t vote for Senator Obama, namely, Fox’s target audience.  Fox’s main headline is the only headline of of the six news organizations with a negative tone.

The Main Image:

First of all, the image chosen matches the main headline.   However, while the grim expression on Obama’s face matches the grim headline, the image creates a negative tone for what would normally be seen as a positive moment (see the other 5 news organizations).  The background is dark with a blurred picture of Obama looking off to the viewer’s left.  Obama’s image in the foreground is in partial shadow.  Film directors often use side-lighting to indicate a character’s evil nature, and the lighting of the photo is very similar to side-lighting.  President-elect Obama’s lips are pursed, eyes, again, looking off to the side.  In both photos, Obama is not making eye contact with the camera, and the photos create a “shifty” look.  There is very little light in this photo, in contrast to the images from all of the other news pages. 

Also, Fox chooses a photograph of Barack Obama that does not include the American flag in the background.  All of the the other news organizations incorporate an American flag or flags in their chosen photos-an appropriate choice for a photo of the new American president.  For a news channel that stresses its own patriotism, this might be considered an odd choice–unless you consider the fact that Fox News spent a good deal of time during the campaign questioning Senator Obama’s patriotism. 

The Other Headlines:

“President-elect Barack Obama will inherit on Jan. 20 the worst financial crisis in 70 years and two wars.

Fox presents a realistic picture of the difficulties facing the new president.  No false optimism here.  The emphasis on the awful state of the union reinforces the negative tone of this page.  Only Fox and ABC refer to “President-elect Barack Obama.”  Fox is the only news organization to identify Obama’s inauguration date.


This headline’s focus on the relatively trivial seems out of place.  The headline is also quite vague.  Whose tears?  The tears of joy shed by Senator Obama’s supporters?  The tears of sadness shed by McCain supporters?  And where were these traffic jams?  Were they around the Grant Park area of Chicage where tens of thousands of supporters gathered on election night?  Or did Obama’s victory cause spontaneous traffic jams in other parts of the country?  This headline is almost comical in its over-reaching for the negative.


A simple, clear statement.  Fox is one of four news sites that mention Senator McCain.

Obama Victory Resounding, but a landslide?

This headline appears to be a response to other news outlets’ (or individuals’) characterization of Senator Obama’s win as a landslide.  The headline seems to accurately and realistically describe the scope of Obama’s victory (resounding, but not a landslide).  This headline serves two purposes for its audience:  it minimizes the strength of Obama’s win and implicitly questions the objectivity of other news outlets.

Miscellaneous Items:

Fonts:  The headlines in all Caps are “Tears and Traffic Jams” and “McCain Concedes Defeat”

Video Links:  Fox’s page includes links to the entire speeches (transcrips and video) of both Obama and McCain.  This is a nice addition that provides unfiltered access to the senators’ own words.

What Is Missing: 

1.  There is no mention of the history-making nature of the American electorate choosing a black man as president.  Possible reasons for this omission include the fact that Fox News had worked hard to prevent Obama’s election and so they might not want to focus on the positive aspects of an Obama win.  It would not be what their target audience would like to see.

2.  No popular vote count, no electoral college count.  Possible reason might be that they do not want to dwell on Senator Obama’s rather large margin of victory both in the popular vote and the electoral college.  They might want to save their audience the “gory details.”  They may be thinking it is enough to report the win.  Another alternative could be that Fox News does not want to publish the tentative counts until they are finalized.  News pages for CBS, Newshour, and ABC news also did not include vote counts.

Fox’s home page includes no tally of senate or congressional races.  No numbers at all.  Similar to their choices regarding popular and electoral vote count, for their audience, they may want to de-emphasize the scope of the Democratic gains in both houses, or simply want to wait for firmer numbers.


Fox Motto (at the top of the website):  “We report, you decide.”  The implication here is that Fox is just presenting the unvarnished facts without any slanting/editorializing/bias, and that the viewer is given the freedom to make up his/her mind about the news stories reported.