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If You've Never Seen It Before, It's News To You: A (Gentle) Rant About Election Coverage

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[Image courtesy of ChefReInvented]

We're now less than a year away from Election Day 2012 - which means that for the next fifty-plus weeks we will see a growing crescendo of stories in the media about the election process.

Media coverage of election administration is tricky. First of all, it isn't always obvious how to separate the politics of of elections from the administration of elections - even though they're very different. Second, because election administration is such a narrow, technical subject it's not like there are "beat reporters" who know the issues inside and out. Finally, the continued contraction of the media - especially print journalism - is generating tremendous turnover that results in little to no opportunities for reporters to familiarize themselves with the field.

Consequently, many stories that seem natural or even routine to those of us in the election community often take on a very different cast in the media. It's like the slogan NBC used for its summer reruns years ago; "If you've never seen it before, it's new to you!"

In that spirit, please indulge me in a gentle rant about two recent stories that exemplify the kind of mistakes I hope the media can avoid as Election Day gets closer.

1. Not Every Disagreement is a Confrontation. Yesterday, I blogged about the continuing struggle between New York State and the federal government about the state's primary date and its impact on military and overseas voters. The triggering event was a letter from the Department of Defense denying New York's request for a waiver of the MOVE Act - a request that is permitted under federal law and one to which DOD is required to respond. Yet, a leading story about the denial said that DOD had "blast[ed]" New York's request when all it had done was refuse the waiver. This story is plenty interesting without the dramatic language - a fact that got lost in the all of the "blasting" noise.

2. Not Every Delay Is A Tactic. Because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires certain states to seek approval for voting changes before they can be enforced, a number of covered states (South Carolina, Texas and soon Mississippi) will need "preclearance" of voter ID from the Department of Justice. This week, DOJ sent Texas a letter asking for more information about its new ID law - which is not unusual and actually somewhat commonplace in complex cases like these - and delaying its deadline for its final decision. You wouldn't know that from the coverage, however, which talks about DOJ "hold[ing] up", "delay[ing]" or "stall[ing]" voter ID. DOJ's request has the effect of postponing a final decision, but the delay is almost certainly not the reason for the request. That gets lost in the sensational headlines.

[There's also a longer point to be made about how the media covers the many flavors of "fraud" in elections - but that's a story for another day.]

To be fair, lots of this results from the fact that the people who write the stories aren't the people who write the headlines - but given that the headline is usually what brings a reader in the first place, it's still important. Election administration isn't the most important story in the world, but as Election Day approaches it will have an increasingly meaningful role in determining the outcome of other stories that are important.

I don't think it's too much, then, to ask that coverage of election administration be as attentive to accuracy of language as it is to accuracy of fact. Readers, like voters, are smart; we all owe it to them give this issue our best.

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