Monday, March 29, 2010

I ♥ City. (It's actually a town)

I can tell you the name of my hometown's mayor. I can tell you who ran against him in the last local election.

However, I can't name every member of Raleigh's city council. I don't think anyone in my high school could.

I followed local government a bit in high school. Before I could vote, I sort of held the opinion that specific names didn't matter as much as knowing activity. So occasionally I'd look for write ups in the local paper. But even those were far behind.

Now I work on the city desk of The Daily Tar Heel, and I'd venture to say I'm incredibly informed. I also believe that if any person in Chapel Hill read most city articles in the paper, they would also be incredibly informed.

Of course, that's never going to happen. That's just dreaming. If people did that, newspapers wouldn't be in trouble.

A recent poll by the Civitas Institute revealed that less than half of polled likely voters knew which political party was in charge of the North Carolina House of Representatives or Senate.

At least among young voters, I think a lot of it has to do with habit. I succumbed, as I know many did, to this idea that if I couldn't vote, it didn't matter. Then you turn 18, and if you haven't been following politics, it's quite hard to start.

Writing a story about young voter turnout in local elections last October, I heard a lot of different excuses for students not voting. Here are some of my favorite excuses for not voting, that unfortunately didn't make it into the published version of the article:
  • I feel like I'm voting into a hole here. Everyone here thinks the same. If I vote back in Asheville I feel like I can actually make a difference.
  • I go home every weekend, so I don't feel like I really live here or there, so I don't really feel like I should vote.
  • I just don't know enough about any of the candidates to feel informed enough to vote.
So, the first one made me laugh. It was hard not to burst out laughing during that interview. The second excuse is completely illegitimate; just pick a place to vote and at least get your voice heard half the time. And as for the third one: that's what we're trying to combat, isn't it?

Learning about politics isn't sexy. It's not fun. Because of that, it's frequently not front page news.

It's not necessarily a fault on the part of the media. It's a lot easier for fires to be front page news.

It's sometimes hard for me to think about how to improve awareness about local government because it's something I love to learn about now. This time last year, however, I was completely unaware at how it worked and about the government in my own city. All that it took for me to become interested was to become, well, part of it.

Local politics affects so much more of your everyday life than national. National politics aren't going to tell you about local EMS funding. They aren't going to tell you about your local library's possible expansion.

We need a way to make people a part of city government. I bet you'll be hooked once you are.

So how can news organizations do that? Here's just a few ideas:
  1. Pictures. News media needs a way to come up with more entertaining photos for the front page. Part of the reason local politics never make it to the front page is that no one wants a picture of a bunch of people sitting around a desk as the main graphic. What is the city council going to be talking about? Is a photo possible of that?
  2. Focus on the personal aspect of a story. Even if the action doesn't personally affect you, it might affect others in a way that you would care. When Chapel Hill's government approved a second Walgreen's, it didn't affect most people, but it still made front page because everyone could relate to that poor old man who lost his livelihood because of the decision.
  3. How does it affect the average reader? Most things do, in one way or another.
Following local government is really worth the effort.
Get involved and see.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sports>Politics. :(

A group of students and I recently conducted a study of six major newspapers: The Winston-Salem Journal, The Greensboro News & Record, The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer in Raleigh, The Wilmington StarNews, and The Fayetteville Observer. These are six major papers in major North Carolina cities all over the state, and as far as I know, fairly well respected.

The goal in the analysis was to look at the numerical distribution of government and politics articles against other kinds of articles. We looked at the numbers of different types of articles in nearly every edition over the course of two weeks.

Before I begin, here are the results of the overall study:

84 newspaper editions total

Local politics/govt stories: 336 (6.4%)

State politics/govt: 272 (5.1%)

National politics/govt: 569 (10.8%)

Sports: 1,432 (27.1%)

Other: 2,674 (50.6%)

Total articles: 5,283

Upon first glance: oh em gee, more than a fourth of our newspapers are about GAMES?! What a waste of our time! No wonder we're such an uninformed society! Less than a fourth of our information is about politics???

Except, I think there's a lot more to these numbers than is implied.

First, the sports thing: yes, there's a lot of about sports published every day. But keep in mind: there are simply a lot of sports that happen every single day. There's undoubtedly still many games that do not make it in to the paper because there's not enough room. There are simply a lot of things in sports that happen every single day, many of which are unexpected (precisely what makes something news), so it's natural that there are so many more sports stories.

Yes. They're games. Yes. That's silly. I personally have never followed sports, and have thus never honestly read sports stories unless it was required for a journalism class. But a lot of people do care about sports. They ARE news. They are a huge part of American culture. So it's really not that shameful that there are so many more sports stories than political stories. There's just a lot in sports that happens each day.

And true, maybe these papers only contain 22 percent political news. But there's a lot more to be being an informed citizen than knowing the latest political American government news. Take business journalism for instance--there were several articles on economy and businesses and other things related. I doubt anyone would say that this is not a legitimate part of society that would not be important to being informed. But all these articles went into "other."

International politics, which can have a lot to do with and sometimes greatly affect American politics, also went into "other," but are greatly important to being informed.

In fact, I would venture a guess to say that if a newspaper distribution study was done on "things important to being an informed citizen" and "things not important to being an informed citizen," these results would be a lot less depressing.

There is one great tragedy in these results, though. Only 6.4 percent of news were about local politics. Almost 11 percent were national news. What?

It's not surprising. National news always get the bigger headlines. But it shouldn't be that way. City and county politics will almost always affect you more than national news will. It's quite unfortunate that the local story and national story numbers aren't reversed.