Many newspapers focused on the ambiguity of the race and the unsettled national mood, with headlines that included “The nation waits,” “Wait of the world” and “Waiting to exhale.” The front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times highlighted the close race in several uncalled swing states.
In the eyes of Julie Moos, executive director of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the Republic’s front page was among the strongest displays, capturing the facts — no result — and the feeling of a nation at odds with itself. Large photos of President Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden over a subdued red-and-blue background provided visual balance, she said.
Front pages convey mood and tone, in addition to information, Moos said. Especially in the Internet age, she said, most people know the facts by the time they look at a newspaper and are seeking to learn what those facts mean or what comes next.
Editors, for their part, have to make decisions about their front pages that will still be accurate in the morning. Their choices, Moos said, are about how to frame what is known for the historical record.
“They’re making a decision knowing that it can’t be wrong, and it also needs to convey some kind of context or forward look so that it’s relevant the next morning,” she said.
Wednesday’s front pages were largely subdued, with cautious language, dark colors and few exclamation marks. Moos said those themes contrasted with how newspapers have treated the results in other election years, such as 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency.
Then, front pages leaned heavily on the word “historic” and used exclamation points to remind readers that much of the country was enthusiastic about the result.
Newspapers’ very different approach Wednesday was noteworthy, Moos said. She said it symbolizes the nationwide anxiety over what might come next, amid businesses boarding their windows and people stocking up on groceries to prepare for potential civil unrest.
One newspaper took a different approach from most of its peers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used a double-decker headline summarizing comments from both presidential candidates in the early morning hours: “Trump: I have won. Biden: It’s not over.” Below it was a photo of election workers counting ballots.
The front page was met with swift backlash online from people who said the framing was likely to confuse Americans about the reality that the race was undecided, despite Trump’s false claim of victory.
“Here’s a newspaper that disgraced itself last night,” tweeted Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and frequent press critic. “And since it’s the print edition, no way to correct or take it back. To title your next-day coverage with a false claim rather than a true fact is quite the spectacle, @ajc.”
HuffPost reporter Michael Hobbes sarcastically tweeted a comparison: “One marathon runner declared himself the winner after 20 miles. The other runners say marathons are 26.2 miles. We’ll leave it up to you to decide.”
Moos said the headline exemplified how a “both sides” approach to journalism — one that seeks neutrality by falsely framing two statements as equally true — can fail. Putting both candidates’ remarks in front of the public without any context or nuance prompts people to align with one candidate or the other without necessarily knowing where the truth lies, she said.
“While there are different values, different perspectives, different ideals that people might use to base their vote on, there are not different facts about how many people have voted‚ who they voted for and, ultimately, who won,” Moos said. “And I think setting up that false dichotomy based on what the two candidates say is so dangerous.”
In response to a request for comment, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor Kevin Riley wrote in an email that the newspaper’s staff was “buried in this story right now” and hopes they “can come up for air tomorrow.”
Despite the criticism of the Journal-Constitution, Moos said most newspapers accurately conveyed the state of the race.
“By and large,” she said, “they were really responsible and really captured the mood of the moment and the facts that we’re facing.”