Super Tuesday reporting generated a lot of social media discourse in March 2020, and among circulating claims was one that network MSNBC manipulated their on-screen graphics by “swapping colors” for presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg:
— Nick McNamara (@nickmc95) March 3, 2020
The screenshots also circulated on Facebook:
All three screenshots shared to r/bernieblindness showed a chyron labeled “Colorado Democratic Primary Voters | Opinion of …” The first screenshot’s chyron was labeled “Michael Bloomberg,” the second “Elizabeth Warren,” and the third “Bernie Sanders.”
In the list below, we matched the colors to the candidate and the percentages based on the image sequence in the embedded Reddit post:
- Bloomberg: Unfavorable (52%); Favorable (25%)
- Warren: Unfavorable (25%); Favorable (72%)
- Sanders: Favorable (63%), Unfavorable (35%)
In those screenshots, Bloomberg and Warren’s “unfavorable” ratings appeared on the left side and were color-coded yellow; Sanders’ “favorable” rating was on the left and yellow, while his “unfavorable” rating was on the right and color-coded green. In that context, the chyron appeared to be an example of “lying with graphs,” or at the very least, misleading.
If the screenshots were captured in that order and accurately reflected MSNBC’s use of chyrons to illustrate favorability polling data, viewers would be signaled by the first two graphs to recognize “favorable” and the left side as yellow-coded, and “unfavorable” on the right side as “green.” Should the network swap colors and sides for Sanders, viewers could easily be forgiven for missing the change in orientation. Another possibility existed that some sort of horizontal scrolling was in effect (since the images were still, we didn’t see how they appeared). That would explain the change in orientation from right to left for “unfavorable,” but the color-coding remained inconsistent.
Per Twitter timestamps, the tweet embedded above was shared roughly six minutes later, at 5:09 PM Eastern Standard Time and 2:09 PM in Los Angeles. That timing seemed to indicate the user captured the images and shared them to Twitter after spotting the color change during ongoing MSNBC coverage of Super Tuesday.
One hour later, @AutomaticZen shared similar screenshots demonstrating the “color swapping” affected Warren and Biden as well. Those screenshots did not display a time, but did display a timer labeled “Super Tuesday first polls close in …”
Although the displayed time was absent on those screengrabs and it was possible the “first polls close in” was adjusted for state-specific reporting, the two subsequent screenshots displayed “1:46:58” and “1:46:47” respectively. Since the timers were counting down to polls closing, the timestamps appeared to have been taken about ten minutes after the first three (although the response tweet was shared an hour later):
The colors are random. Unless the choice is also aimed at Biden and Warren? pic.twitter.com/9t4nAvvoHD
— M.H. Williams (@AutomaticZen) March 3, 2020
The first screenshot on the left was labeled “Colorado Democratic Primary Voters | Opinion of Elizabeth Warren,” and the second was labeled “California Democratic Primary Voters | Opinion of Joe Biden.” Their respective color-coded percentages displayed in this fashion on the chyron, matching Sanders’ color-coding in the first set of screenshots:
- Warren (Colorado): Favorable (72%); Unfavorable (25%)
- Biden (California): Favorable (61%); Unfavorable (31%)
However, another Twitter thread about the color-coding controversy received a reply with video of the MSNBC graphic in question:
— Sabine – Sierra Foothills Stump (@SabineSFS) March 4, 2020
That clip was 46 seconds long and appeared to have been captured with someone’s phone. About 19 seconds in, the chyron shifts from Bloomberg to Sanders, and the categories “swap” — yellow remains on the left and green on the right. However, yellow becomes “favorable” and green “unfavorable.” Just after the 30-second mark, the chyron changes. After an interstitial graphic appears, Warren’s name is displayed with yellow returning to “unfavorable” on the left and green to “favorable” on the right.
It is true that in the first sequence, color-coding for “favorable” and “unfavorable” seemed to swap after Warren and Bloomberg’s stats for Colorado appeared on the chyron, reversing for Sanders twelve seconds later. Video of the segment indicated that the color-coding in that brief clip changed only for Sanders, changing back for Warren before the video ended. In screengrabs from what appeared to be ten minutes later, Warren and Biden’s numbers are shown in the “favorable”/yellow and “unfavorable”/green format. It’s true that this is real — but without any official statement from MSNBC, whether it was intentional or a simple mistake is anybody’s guess.