Reporting or Storytelling? When watchdogs need glasses…

Today is election day.  It’s taken on a more personal nature as my aunt is running for office once again after losing in 2006.  My aunt is a Republican and lost the 2006 election initially by 9 votes (it became 39 after a recount) in what was basically a lack of voter turnout.

So voting matters.  It really does.

It’s been interesting for me on this election day.  I got my daily email from the New York Times, indicating how the election is epic in nature and giving me a full viewing guide for the election (with popcorn included). I feel like I should be waiting for the violins and trumpets in the soundtrack to this dramatic adventure of an election – because, if you are listening or watching or reading, you know that this is an historic event.

(You know something is important when we place the object “an” in front of “historic” because it is so distinctively different and draws attention.)

Given what little media coverage I have subjected myself to, it has made me ask a lot of questions to the nature of reporting and the media.  After reading a recent confession from Michael Malone of, I felt like someone came out of the closet and confessed the sins of how journalists have had to play dirty themselves and result to tabloidism and thus abuse their power and position in order to resuscitate a dying industry.  My journalist friends have even felt shame on themselves from what was once an honorable profession.

I comforted one and told him I know what it’s like – I work in Christian Ministry on a secular university campus.  Shame really only has one redeemable characteristic – it can cause us to confess, repent, and receive grace we don’t deserve.

I do a lot of confession on campus.

I later read up on media coverage through the independent (at least I still think it is) Pew Research Center on how the Press has reported the 2008 Presidential Election.  I think they did a good job, but I’m not an expert in this area and would welcome anyone’s criticism of their conclusions.  They measure coverage as either positive, negative, or neutral.  And the numbers show that Obama received twice as much positive coverage and half as much negative coverage.

This was the case in previous elections as well – that whoever is perceiving as winning gets more favorable coverage.  In other words, the American press loves winners.

The second conclusion they drew was that the press tends to instantaneously reinforce and echo every event.  And this is so easy to see: Joe the Plumber, Acorn, number of homes, “spread the wealth,” etc.

And like echos, the press generally caricatures things more and more as things progress, and things begin to snowball.  According to the Pew Research Center data, the story of this election is the snowball effect of John McCain.  And in order to appeal to an increasingly postmodern society, one that focuses on story and not necessarily facts, the press tries to grab market share will entertain the audience through storytelling.

Thus we live in an era of soundbites – not thoughtful research.  And reporting becomes storytelling, and those who are watchdogs need to get glasses, get lean, and get busy.  Otherwise the watchdogs become lapdogs.

And don’t get me wrong – I love lapdogs.  Our old cocker spaniel, Molly, was the best lapdog.  Scratch her right behind her ear and she was instantly your best friend.  In her early years she was very protective and wasn’t afraid to ward off enemies…like barncats, woodchucks, skunks, and women with too much perfume.

But Molly got old, fat, blind, and deaf.  I still loved her, and she still loved me, but her role as a watchdog was worthless.

And we can’t afford for the press to be worthless.

So, back to my aunt running for office.  She authored and passed 11 bills into law in her first two terms as a republican state representative with a democratic governor – more than any representative in the first two terms in the history of the state.  She lost in 2006 because of poor voter turnout and she happened to be a republican in the 2006 election.  She’s my aunt, and she’s awesome.

And I’m totally biased.  I admit it.  I’m certainly not a journalist – geotechnical foundation design and structural analysis didn’t exactly teach me much on how to interview people.

Her opponent has only written three bills in his entire first term and passed none.

I know we are supposed to be thankful for high voter turnout.  But what about when the electorate is uninformed?  Or even worse, misinformed by propaganda that is allowed because our press has become a lazy lapdog?

Case in point – my brother tells me he saw a picture of my aunt’s opponent photoshopped over Obama’s picture saying, “Vote for Change!”

Um, aren’t you the incumbent?  How is voting for you change?  Oh, that’s right, you’re just riding on the wave of popularity and are aligning yourself with the presidential candidate who has received twice as much positive news coverage and half as much negative news coverage.

Thus begins the thought process for most folks:

  • Obama = Cool.
  • Andy’s Aunt’s Opponent = Obama.
  • Andy’s Aunt’s Opponent = Cool.
  • Cool = good.
  • Vote for Andy’s Aunt’s opponent

When the press doesn’t do it’s job well, it’s not difficult to take advantage of a misinformed electorate.  That  is not the intent of the Obama campaign – but the Obama campaign would be stupid to not take advantage of the opportunities given to them.  And it’s not hard to see they were given one.

And by the way, that’s also not a legitimate reason to vote against Obama.  In a democracy, registered voters can only vote for people, not against them.

The bigger question is this – will the media allow itself to be subjected to the same level of criticism it gives?

Maybe this is why I loved what happened last election in 2004 with Jon Stewart on Crossfire.  We need more people who can expose poor press practices for what they really are.

2 Responses to “Reporting or Storytelling? When watchdogs need glasses…”

  1. 1 Robert November 9, 2008 at 8:14 am

    So how did Andy’s Aunt do?

    The only problem I have with this argument (an I agree with the concept of it) is how do you draw the line between informed/uninformed and who gets to draw the line?

    If you read a lot of material and go to speakers – but they are only the party that you are supporting and you have no balance…is that stillinformed enough? I mean someone could spend days doing research and thinking about the issues, but gets their information only from Fox News. Is that vote worth more or less than someone who doesn’t read anything?

    Then you get into the who draws that line. Whoa…thorny. I think that everyone should be informed when they vote – but it is quite difficult to get good information on candidates. In spite of or because of the overload of information we have access to.

    It is kind of like free speech – everyone has to have it for it to truly be free. It sucks when some one says something that you don’t agree with, but you have to take the good with the bad.

  2. 2 andybilhorn November 9, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Andy’s Aunt lost. It sucks – for a discussion on it, look at my Facebook Profile. My cousin chimes in on his view from the ground.

    I agree with your point – and I don’t think I really believe we can draw the line between informed/uniformed. That is ultimately a self awareness thing…only the mature are able to really acknowledge that.

    But how many people who didn’t vote will say, “I didn’t vote because I’m ignorant and I figured it would be better for me to not vote?”

    If we have an uniformed electorate (because the press doesn’t really do real reporting anymore – local, national, and international) then democracy is really about winning the mob. Yikes.

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November 2008

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