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.
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:
- 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?
- 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.
- How does it affect the average reader? Most things do, in one way or another.
Get involved and see.