The media’s coverage of low voter turnout is a self-fulfilling prophecy

dickerson columnThe Detroit Free Press’ Brian Dickerson has it mostly wrong in his recent column about why such a small percentage of voters voted in last week’s election.

People who do not vote should not be held up as “the new normal” or the people who are making the best decision because they don’t like the choices they are given. Democracy isn’t meant to be easy and freedom isn’t free. If you fail to show up and vote, you have no right to complain about who got elected. If you fail to fight and try to make a difference in the things you want to see changed, you have no right to complain that things aren’t the way you want them.

Voters today are part of a society driven by Hollywood’s and TV’s interpretation of the world, biased cable TV news networks, bloggers with no professional standards held up as real journalists, and real journalists hog-tied by shrinking budgets and corporate management intent on web clicks and social media likes instead of credibility.

Admittedly, I haven’t done any exhaustive research on this. But when you review the political coverage of the recent elections, I suspect you will find a vastly larger number of articles based on polling results that are questionable at best, a focus on who is funding candidates, reviews of what the latest blistering negative TV ads are spewing, and the supposedly campaign-ending scandals that aren’t nearly as evil as the media and election ads portray them. And, let’s not forget the large number of articles focused on how difficult it supposedly is to vote in the Unites States.

What’s missing is in-depth reporting on candidates, their credentials, the issues they care about, what they would actually do if elected and why people need to vote to have their voices heard. And the rest of the year, when electioneering isn’t driving the news coverage, it would be nice if the media reported on the day-to-day activities of elected officials. The Capitol Press Corps in Michigan has shrunk dramatically over the years, and many reporters have shied away from “process stories,” because editors (in those newsrooms where they still exist) don’t think the public will click on them. But the process is where all the interesting news happens. The final votes taken on the floor of the House and Senate are a very small part of all the work that has gone into a law being crafted. Floor speeches, while great for soundbites for a media driven by sensationalism, rarely have any real impact on how a person’s colleagues will vote. That’s because all the true debate, the hashing out of ideas, and the bipartisan compromise happened weeks and months prior in a committee process deemed “too boring” for the public to be told about.

Is it any wonder then that the public is feeling disenfranchised and wondering why they should bother to vote? Instead of being given a manual on democracy to study they are being fed the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes. In an ever-growing and concerning trend, we may not even receive that version anymore but instead the equivalent of a movie trailer.

My 18-year-old daughter voted in her first general election this year. She texted me one day while reviewing her absentee ballot (provided to her because she is away at college).

“This is difficult. How do you choose? There are so many people and none of their websites make sense. The troubles of a teenage voter.”

I was so proud of her for actually doing research on the candidates and not just listening to her dad’s opinion! I responded with the best advice I could think of that wouldn’t drive her to just do what I suggested.

“Democracy isn’t supposed to be easy and I applaud you for trying to research the candidates!”

If only more voters cared as much as my daughter, post-Election Day news coverage wouldn’t be all about the hand wringing over low voter turn out. And if only more media outlets understood their post-Election Day news coverage is a self-fulfilling prophecy, then we might actually get some true news coverage of government instead of sensationalistic, half-baked reports designed to increase computer clicks instead of voter intellect.

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How many Michiganders does it take to change a lightbulb?

Detroit Free Press Editor Ron Dzwonkowski wrote a good column for today’s paper about how elected officials are often the last people to “get it.” He wrote:

“Maybe that’s why they continue to bicker and shout and pander to noisy special interest groups while most of the people they are supposed to represent would prefer cooperation, meaningful change and progress.”

I was pleased to see Dzwonkowski quote my friend Becky Johns as a representative of her generation. Becky recently wrote an excellent blog post about Future Midwest — I especially liked the part where she asks, “Now what?”

I commented on her blog, saying it really is important to make sure events like Future Midwest don’t end up just becoming a bunch of people talking to themselves about what should be done. People have to take ideas and act upon them; that’s how you create positive change in a community.

Our elected leaders — at the state and local level — are such a disappointment lately with their petty battles. I was a speaker at a conference in Oklahoma City recently and they are making some amazing, positive improvements to that city. When I asked a colleague there about the changes and whether the mayor who has been championing a lot of them is a Republican or Democrat, he seemed surprised. He said the mayor is a Republican, but noted that in Oklahoma City, that doesn’t really matter. He said the city has a good track record of not worrying about the politics and focusing more on the problem at hand.

It was tough to admit to him that one of the issues we’re facing in Michigan is that politics often is the problem at hand. Hopefully, we’ll see some sensible people elected in November who can bring to Lansing some civility and a desire to do something because it’s a good idea regardless of which party proposed it.  Here are some things I’d like to pursue over the next year:

  • We need to keep hounding people who were at Future Midwest about what they’ve accomplished so far and prod them to keep achieving even more.
  • We need to put term limits back where they belong: in the voting booth.
  • And we need to ban elected officials from running for another office until they’ve completed the term of their current office. That would avoid the scenario of a Senate majority leader running for attorney general and the speaker of the House running for governor while the state they are charged with protecting crumbles around their election campaigns. (Addendum: In all fairness to Mike Bishop and Andy Dillon, they aren’t the only two leaders distracted by their own job searches. We have state representatives running for the state Senate and local office. We have senators running for countywide offices, the Secretary of State’s office and Congress. We have a congressman and an attorney general running for governor. And we have countywide officials running for governor and secretary of state while our secretary of state runs for lieutenant governor. No wonder no one can focus on the job at hand — they’re all too busy trying to land their next one.)

I hope Becky and her peers never lose their desire to do more than just talk about what’s wrong. In the end, they are not only the future of this state, but the catalyst to sweep away the flotsam and jetsam that is bobbing around the state Capitol and the city halls of Southeast Michigan. And those of us in other generations can help them do this. Get involved in the election process. Find out what a person really stands for and don’t vote based on what you see on TV ads or the campaign literature that is filled with half-truths, or worse.

In addition, let’s start working together across generations. People often wring their hands and wonder why young college graduates are leaving Michigan. Maybe that’s because, too often, we’re not giving them a reason to stay. It’s not just about jobs. Sometimes it’s about knowing that there is a bright future in Michigan. The light bulb has dimmed in the Great Lakes State, so it’s time for a new one.

How many Michiganders does it take to change a light bulb? All of us. So let’s get to it.

(Photo courtesy of Armistead Booker’s Flickr stream.)

It’s time to end the rage and hate forums

Reader comments. Story comments. Rage and hate forums. Call them what you want, but the comments section at the end of every Lansing State Journal story posted at its web site have gone from crazy and laughable to pointless and stupid.

When will the publishers of the State Journal realize that their reader comments section destroys the paper’s credibility as a beacon of truth and leadership in the community? Allowing unmoderated comments from hurtful people focused only on their own agendas of hate is the last thing this region needs and making it an official record by hosting it at the LSJ web site is a disservice.

I don’t mean to single out the State Journal, because they certainly are not alone in this age of anonymous rage. I just happen to be exposed to that newspaper more than others because it’s my local paper. I posted a question on Twitter today about this subject:

Reader comments at (the Lansing State Journal) are filled with rage & hate. Do all local papers have that problem?

It was disheartening to have so many people reply in the affirmative:

Yes. It’s the anonymity that allows for it. Newspapers rushed to add the comments, but didn’t know how to build a community. ~ Ike Pigott, Birmingham, Ala.

The (Detroit Free Press) and (Detroit News) reader comments are also filled with rage and hate, and most discussions turn to race in no time at all. ~ Maureen Francis, Birmingham, Mich.

I’ve seen the same on Detroit and other news websites. Kinda makes you lose faith in your fellow (hu)man. 😦  ~ Kate Sumbler, Michigan

Yes, they do. I think it’s bad on news sites because there’s an anonymity in ranting about something you don’t agree with on web. ~ Valerie Morgan, Lansing, Mich.

And it’s more than just nonsense — it’s a problem for journalists and their sources. As Louise Knott Ahern pointed out, “Negative comments actually scare off sources from talking to the media.” There’s an interesting piece about this phenomenon involving the Washington Post here.

It was awesome to get a much more positive response from Derek Wallbank, a reporter for MinnPost. As Derek explained, “We moderate comments & require real names to post anything. Keeps it more civil.”

Hallelujah — a newspaper with a conscience! I looked up MinnPost’s terms of service about comments:

MinnPost does not permit the use of foul language, personal attacks or the use of language that may be libelous or interpreted as inciting hate or sexual harassment. User comments are reviewed by moderators to ensure that comments meet these standards and adhere to MinnPost’s terms of use and privacy policy. We intend for this area to be used by our readers as a place for civil, thought-provoking and high-quality public discussion. In order to achieve this, MinnPost requires that all commenters register and post comments with their actual names and place of residence.

Imagine how wonderful it would be to have a hometown newspaper with a solid terms of service that required real names to be used in a forum moderated for civility. The Lansing State Journal’s terms of service make promises, but the paper falls short of enforcing them every day. The LSJ’s terms read:

(Readers agree not to)…Engage in personal attacks, harass or threaten, question the motives behind others’ posts or comments, deliberately inflame or disrupt the conversation, or air personal grievances about other users.

And, of course, it doesn’t help that many newspapers don’t require the use of someone’s real name when posting comments. It’s interesting that they require name, address and phone number when you submit a letter to the editor, but online they let hate and rage run unchecked. As Nate Erickson, a recent Michigan State University graduate now living in New York, noted: “Anonymity or perceived anonymity breeds idiocy.”

Idiocy. Rage. Hate. Call it what you want. It’s time for real names, personal responsibility and common civility to replace it all. This is my public challenge to the Lansing State Journal publishers to lead the way. Claim your place as a leader in building a positive online community by reviewing your policies, improving them and enforcing them. If you build it, we will come.

How will we get our news?

hownews panelI attended a forum last night focused on the future of journalism titled, “How will we get our news?”

It was hosted by the Central Michigan chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and the Michigan State University chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America. Featured panelists were Ron Dzwonkowski from the Detroit Free Press, Cindy Goodaker from Crain’s Detroit Business and Bill Emkow from MLive.

The event was centered around the One Book, One Community project in East Lansing and its focal point was described as such:

In The Soloist, Steve Lopez laments the demise of newspapers, with their power to tell a story and inspire action. What is the future of the news industry in this age of blogs and on-line news?

One thing that became abundantly clear throughout the night was that there are no easy answers when it comes to the future of journalism — in terms of reporters being given the time and resources to do their jobs properly and businesses being around that can actually sustain the delivery of news in the traditional formats. Yes, shocking news here — newspapers are for-profit businesses. For some reason, people don’t seem to think it’s acceptable for a newspaper to make money, lest it abandon its altruistic nature. But publishing a newspaper costs money, and 85 to 90 percent of the revenue for most newspapers comes from advertising.

It also became clear pretty quickly that old-school journalists are struggling to figure out how to deliver news online while the online folks are frustrated by the newspaper people who think the answer is to simply reproduce the papers in a digital format.

I tweeted from the event, as did a few others. I believe we had a journalist or two in the audience who might write about the event, but those who were following #hownews on Twitter last night already have the story. A bit of irony there, I suppose — that a microblogging platform scooped traditional news outlets on covering a story about the future of journalism. Perhaps a local news organization could have sent a reporter to tweet from the event and then write up a standard news story later. That’s a method of reporting I don’t see being used often enough.

Here are a few of the topics discussed last night that I’d like folks to weigh in on:

  1. One panelist suggested that without major media, online news sources wouldn’t exist — that they are all fed by the mainstream media. Agree or disagree?
  2. Do readers still exist for long-form, investigative stories since everyone likes quick, short news now? Have we, as a society, lost any meaningful attention span?
  3. The average age of readers of the Detroit Free Press and Crain’s Detroit Business is mid-50s. Dzwonkowski said, “the typical newspaper consumer is a dying breed.” He also said, “Young people are consuming a lot of information, but they are consuming it unedited.” He’s worried that no one is bothering to check and double-check the facts and make sure a story is coming from a qualified, reliable source. Do you agree?

One question I asked of the panel and would like to hear your response to as well is: how can we get all people, regardless of age, to once again trust that journalists are doing the proper legwork and providing accurate stories from credible sources? I’d start by getting the Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermans of the world off the cable TV news stations and put them on “The Opinionated Screamers Channel” so people take them with the grain of salt they deserve.

How would you start?

(Photo courtesy of Jessi Wortley Adler – @minij)


If you build it, they will read it

printing pressThe world of newspaper journalism has been turned on its head lately with bankruptcies, layoffs, the discontinuation of print editions, the discontinuation of papers altogether — and many people seem to be struggling with how to help the industry survive.

I’ve been to several meetings in the past few days talking about the new, digital face of newspapers and how this is the way to be successful. I’m not sure I buy it, though, because I’m not sure newspaper publishers have figured out their problem: if you don’t give people a product they want to read, they won’t read it, no matter what flashy format you deliver it in.

There was a great blog entry posted recently about the 16 things people learn in journalism school. It is an awesome reminder to those in the industry about their responsibilities in wielding the power of the pen, which we all know is truly mightier than the sword.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that the 16 basic rules outlined in that blog are often pushed aside lately. I’ve seen it in the journalism schools themselves, as the basic concepts of excellent reporting and writing are ignored to make room for the teaching of delivery methods.

While I was at one of the aforementioned meetings, I was tweeting about changes occurring at the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, which both have recently scaled back home delivery to three days per week, have launched E-editions and are working on E-reader versions to be available on the Kindle within a few weeks. As I like to do while tweeting events, I started posing questions to start some discussions.

I thought one of the most compelling comments was this one, from @yasky:

They can’t control delivery method as they are no longer the gatekeepers of information. We may transition, but by choice only.

Perhaps that’s the biggest problem newspaper publishers are dealing with. They are faced with increasing expenses and decreasing advertising revenue. They are faced with a 24-hour news cycle that won’t wait for the ink to dry on the paper anymore. And they are faced with a fickle audience that will not pay for news when it’s available for free in so many other places. But, the harsh reality is just as @yasky said: they are no longer the gatekeepers.

Journalists as a whole, be they in print or broadcast, used to be the primary sources for news and information across the globe. Now, I often don’t hear about news first from a professional journalist, I hear about it from someone who has posted it on Twitter or Facebook or a blog. Certainly, that first person to post a news item may be directly involved, but often they are initially hearing the news from a professional journalist. However, that’s where the control stops. The spreading of news and information has gone global, it has gone viral, it has gone out of the hands of newspaper publishers and into the hands of their (former) readers.

So, the big question is, how do they turn those former readers back into subscribers? First, they need to remember the 16 things they learned in journalism school from the blog post linked above. Then, they need to learn to produce stories so well-written and compelling that people want to read them. They need to build a newspaper that, regardless of delivery method, people feel they cannot do without because it is offering information not found elsewhere. They need to, once again, become the gatekeepers of information that no one else has the time or the talent to uncover and write about.

I’m certainly not professing to have all the answers that are going to save the newspaper industry — no one should be foolish enough to claim that talent. But I am willing to suggest certain steps that newspapers should consider taking immediately:

— give the readers what they want and need;

— give the readers something they can’t find elsewhere;

— create a mecca for news and information that is credible and reliable.

If you build it, they will read it.

(Image courtesy of the BBC.)