From Hillary to LeBron: What political journalists can learn from sportswriters

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Copyright – Langley Photography 2013

Covering politics and sports would seem to have a lot in common. In both pursuits, there are winners and losers and the heat of competition. But sportswriters seem to be far more successful in engaging readers these days. Political journalists, in fact, have often been criticized for turning their readers off to politics. Only 36% of eligible voters turned out in the 2014 Midterm Elections[1], suggesting, as a Pew Research Center poll found, that “there’s an erosion of trust” between individuals and government.

Jay Rosen, assistant professor of journalism at New York University, suggests a reason for that disillusionment in his article “Making Politics Work”:

When politics is portrayed as a shouting match between embittered rivals who agree on nothing, citizens are encouraged to withdraw from the scene entirely, to retreat into apathy, cynicism and the comfort of blanket statements like ‘politics doesn’t affect me’ or ‘they’re all liars and crooks.’”

On the other hand, sports journalism has taken off like a rocket ship. ESPN is worth more than $50 billion, making it more valuable than ABC and many publicly traded companies.[2] Sports reporters are masters at keeping their readers (called fans) engaged: an article last year in the Columbia Journalism Review cites, “sports journalism has taken the lead in audience engagement, creative use of technology, and experimental story presentation.”

Why do we love sports journalism and have distaste for political journalism?

Reuters columnist Jack Shafer explains the similar challenges of both kinds of writing:

The jobs of political reporters and sports writers are almost identical: Determine who is ahead and who is behind; get inside the heads of the participants; decode the relevant strategies and tactics; and find a way to convert reader interest into sustainable enthusiasm. Then, maintain reader enthusiasm for the months and months of caucuses or preseason games, primaries or regular season games, conventions or playoffs, and the general election or Super Bowl (or World Series).”

So if the roles of the reporters are identical, as Mr. Shafer suggests, why are readers turned off by political articles and engaged by sports articles? Aside from whether sports figures are more endearing than politicians, are there major differences in the writing styles of political journalists and sports reporters that contribute to the huge spread in reader engagement?

Our Analysis:

We used our natural language processing technology to analyze the writing in a data set of 733 articles covering March Madness and the Presidential Primaries, compiled by Sharon Jarvis at the University of Texas at Austin. We indexed each of the language patterns on a scale from 0-100 and benchmarked the results against our database containing over 100,000 pieces of comparable content, to answer the question, “What makes sports coverage exciting and political coverage so dull?”

Key findings:

  1. Sports reporters are focused on accomplishments: On average, sports reporters make 44.7% more references to accomplishments than political journalists.
    • You’ll find statements such as, “He won four national championships in 12 seasons at Kentucky Wesleyan College and Oklahoma City University and had a total of five national runner-up finishes and eight conference titles” throughout many of the sports articles.
  2. Sports reporters use inclusive language: On average, sports reporters use 49.4% more inclusive language than political journalists.
    • Inclusive messaging uses language that references a culture or collective psyche that fosters and supports inclusion.
    • For example, quotes such as: “‘We have all worked so hard all year. We work together as a team and it showed’” demonstrate how the inclusive mindset found in teamwork can lead to a win.
  3. Sports articles are clear: On average, the sports articles were written with 24% more clarity than the political articles.
    • Sports articles were written at the 9th grade level, while the political articles were written at the 12th grade level.

Sports and political reporters


In politics, we follow the process; in sports, we love the accomplishment (win or lose)

Sports reporters are more likely to reference accomplishments in their writing and thus portray their subjects in a more positive light. In our dataset, sports articles use 52.6% fewer references to operations than the political articles—meaning that political reporters are more likely than sports reporters to write about the process rather than the results.

Sports articles use a more conversational tone

The combination of high clarity and inclusion scores suggests that the sports articles were written in a more “conversational” format. Sportswriters tend to use simple, everyday rhetoric and speak directly to their readers. In fact, the sports articles analyzed in this study used 85.4% more second-person pronouns than the political articles analyzed.

This conversational style of writing can be highly engaging because it brings the reader’s perspective into the discussion. Studies suggest that readers are more likely to stay focused if they or their directly held beliefs are referenced in a message. An article written in a conversational style takes the approach of talking to its readers, as opposed to talking at its readers.

How to apply these learnings

This data-driven analysis suggests two strategies for keeping readers engaged: include more references to accomplishments and fewer to processes, and try adopting a more conversational style of writing. Whether writing an article, blog, press release, or even an annual letter to shareholders, keep these suggestions in mind in order to keep your readers engaged in your writing.