Politics and Sharks

by Sheila Connolly

Happy first Monday of March! Only eight months left until the national election.

Since I write about Ireland, I’ve bookmarked the website for RTE News (that’s Raidió Teilifís Éireann, the sort of semi-public news source for the Republic of Ireland). I read the headlines, which vary from serious to funny, and include a lot of weather reports.

Recently one headline caught my eye: “Shark attacks and democratic elections.” No, this was not written as an election summary, either American or Irish. It’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek commentary on how elections are reported and interpreted.

Shark mapIt begins with a statement by a Trinity College emeritus professor, who wrote that a record number of shark attacks were reported worldwide in the past year. Most were in Florida, no surprise. But then he went on to say that there was a series of shark attacks in New Jersey early in the last century (1916, to be precise)—a first for the state—as reported by two senior professors at Princeton at the time.

What, the author of the RTE article asked, does this have to do with 2016 elections? Apparently the New Jersey attacks occurred in a presidential election year. Evidence shows that the incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, lost in those counties where the shark attacks took place. And somehow, in the press, the president was blamed for the attacks.

Woodrow Wilson

The message seems to be that when unpredictable disasters that no government could possibly control occur, elected officials pay a penalty at the polls.

It’s not logical, but it’s true. And it makes an entertaining story, doesn’t it? Sharks sink president? Which leads me to think about how both campaign personnel and reporters craft a story (albeit from opposite directions)—one that is intended to sell either the candidate or more papers (or digital subscriptions these days). Keep your articles short and sensationalistic and people will pay attention—and believe what they say. The headlines don’t have to be accurate, and few readers are checking the facts.

So it’s all about crafting a story, in both the short and the long term. That often means stringing together a series of “highs” that grab attention and that people will remember (like all those “-gate” titles). Kind of like a thriller novel, right? Something must always be happening, to keep you turning the pages. You the reader don’t even stop to think about the credibility of the event (oh, sure, I believe that character jumped off the Empire State Building and landed on that helicopter strut, grabbing it with one hand while he shot the pilot with the gun he managed to hold on to during his frantic leap, and he then flew the helicopter to safety with the kidnapped wife of a foreign leader and her dog), because you’re so caught up in the story. For a writer, that’s good, but for a politician? Not so much.

Should we as writers be encouraged or depressed? It seems that people are eager to embrace fiction, if it’s exciting enough. As writers we can produce that. We can structure a story to keep the reader turning the pages. But in the real world? Let’s hope that voters can distinguish fact from fiction.

Do you have any favorite political headlines? Like “Thomas Dewey beats Harry S. Truman” from 1948? (If you try your best to ignore all political noise, I don’t blame you!)