Why ‘who cares’ is a good election coverage question
“Who cares?” often is asked in newsrooms to kill story ideas, and often that’s a good thing. But we tend not to ask the question about stories as big as presidential elections. After all, everybody should care, right? But you can find some interesting stories if you’ll think about the question carefully as you plan your campaign coverage this fall.
Want to know who cares? Go ask. Ask readers what they think about the election. Not why they love/hate Obama or Romney, but what they think about how our democratic system is working and whether they feel they belong in it.
More specific suggestions below, but first some numbers.
Gallup this week says 58 percent of registered voters aged 18 to 29 plan to “definitely vote” this fall.The remaining 42 percent (and remember these are people who at least cared enough to register) obviously are less enthusiastic. It’s early, but Gallup sees signs that young voter turnout could be down significantly from 2008. Overall, 78 percent of voters told pollsters they’re going to vote, so young voter enthusiasm clearly is lagging.
So are the unenthused 42 percent just clueless and lazy? You won’t know unless you ask. You might find that some of them are making a political statement by declining to vote. You may find confusion, apathy, despair and “my vote won’t make a difference.”
By the way, in many states a plausible argument can be made that everybody already knows whether the state will go for Obama or Romney, so maybe supporters of the “loser” have a point that their vote doesn’t make a difference at the presidential level. If you’re in a solid red state, you could talk to blue voters (or vice versa) about whether their vote feels important to them. (If you’re in a swing state, then of course the unenthused voter is even more important because he/she could tip the balance.)
Now what about the 58 percent who seem engaged? Your humble adviser has read far too many stories in which Joe Local Student and Jane Local Student say exactly the same things about their chosen candidates that everybody on cable TV has been saying for a month. Who cares? However, if you tell me that Joe tirelessly blogs for Obama and Jane does the same for Romney, I want to read about them. I want to know how they spend their day and why they think it’s important. I want to see their faces. Are their posts funny? Do their friends think they’re nuts? Do they love politics or just hate their opponents? Do they want to run for office someday?
Quick tip: It’s sometimes easier to do “what do you think” interviews in groups. If you can engage a bunch of friends talking at table in the Student Union, their own interactions may be great. They may speak more freely among friends, and you may get banter among voters and non-voters. If you’re looking for audio and/or video, this could be the ticket. For print, the group interview gives you a way to set a scene and tell a little story rather than piling up quotes from unconnected people.
Get out there and talk to people, report what they say and then think about how your coverage responds to their views. After all, you don’t want them to look at your product and say, “Who cares?”