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Misleading lede

You may have seen the article in New York Times with the headline, "Major Kerry Donors Actually Give More to Bush." It begins:

Senator John Kerry is beginning his drive to compete financially against President Bush with a disadvantage: almost half of his campaign's largest sources of money have given more money to Mr. Bush, according to a new study.

I actually read the study by the Center for Responsive Politics a few days ago and found it too misleading to bother with. Now, CJR Campaign Desk has put my disgust into words:

The reality is newsworthy; large corporations have mechanisms that encourage employees to contribute, and that can add up. But employees are contributing only on behalf of themselves, not their employer. And, since individual donors can't give more than $2,000 to any presidential campaign (or more than $5,000 to any presidential candidate's PAC), that would make impossible for a "major Kerry donor" who had given the maximum allowable amount to the Democrat to have given more to Bush.

But readers don't necessarily know that. When they read that, "9 of Mr. Kerry's top 20 donors favored Bush," it's reasonable -- but wrong -- for them to conclude that the word "donors" refers to individual people.

In cases like this, words matter -- those of both the reporter and the headline writer. And, as Mark Twain once noted, the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

By the way, "lede" is newspaperese for the lead paragraph of a story. I think it is written that way to prevent confusion with lead, the stuff type used to be made of and also the spacing between lines of type.

Comments

I am responding on behalf of the Center for Responsive Politics to your item titled “Misleading Lede.” The item contends that our March 4 report, “Bush Raising Campaign Funds From Kerry’s Top Contributors,” failed to specify that Kerry’s “contributors” or “donors” referred not to individual contributors, but to organizations whose employees and political action committees contributed to Kerry’s campaign. The item goes on to challenge our practice of grouping the contributions of employees together under the name of their employer in the first place.

We made clear in our report (as did the New York Times in its article) that the contributions to Kerry came from "individuals" or "employees" of the organizations identified. We are confident that our readers understood exactly that. However, we are also aware of how difficult it can be for the public to comprehend campaign finance stories. And as careful as we always are about how we explain campaign giving and the laws governing it, we will continue to consider ways to make the subject as clear as possible to our readers.

That said, the challenge to our methodology is a more serious issue that we must address. We strongly believe in our methodology, which calls for coding contributions from individuals based on the economic interests of those individuals. The patterns of these contributions provide critical information for anyone tracking the money being raised for, and spent on, federal elections. In some cases, a cluster of contributions from the same organization may indicate a concerted effort by that organization to “bundle” contributions to the candidate or party. That cluster more often may reflect, at a minimum, the common belief among executives and others that giving money to a candidate or party is in the best interests of the organization.

In other cases—both with private companies and with government agencies, non-profits and educational institutions—the reason for the contributions may be completely unrelated to the organization. We cannot read the minds of donors. But given what is reported, we can spot patterns. Those patterns prove valuable time and again to the many journalists, academics, activists and others who cite our work and visit our Web sites on a regular basis.

I would be happy to supply more information about our methodology to anyone who would like it. We remain committed to presenting the most accurate campaign finance figures and analysis available.