I watched the marathon media coverage of the 2012 elections from every source imaginable. Newspapers from every American city, Television, Twitter, and dozens of inputs from bloggers on both sides of the aisle—no news source was too small to cover the presidential election or escape my feeds. Few, however, gave much front page real-estate on congressional races, or propositions within their state. Those topics were relegated to page B6 or obscure blogs. This was a one-story election. The Obama vs. Romney story, with clearly defined characters and tired themes, was hammered for 8 months. Few headlines were given to heated battles in congressional districts, or the campaigns for taxes, gay marriage, and marijuana legalization that were happening around the country.
The one-story focus of the media was not a symptom of this election, but of the way the world consumes news today. There were, of course, articles written somewhere about all the issues in the election. What got shared, however, what got pushed up to the top of the page and given major editorial attention, was the presidential contest. This was true even in newspapers with a more regional following, like a Kansas City Star or a Seattle Times, even though local tax battles and congressional representation could affect the lives of local citizens more deeply than the presidency.
The trend towards a single-story election is a dangerous one, because local communities will have less educated voters about issues that are close to home. Campaigns for propositions, and often for congressional seats, are increasingly impacted purely by special interest funded media like attack advertisements; studies show that many don’t read the voter information pamphlets that are sent out. The media can avoid this by offering viewers a mixture of national elections headlines with short, lightweight human interest stories about local political issues. These are stories designed to trigger an emotional response from a reader, normally focused on a small community or character that would not in itself be newsworthy if it did not speak on a larger trend or issue. In the case of elections, they might be stories about a group students rallying around a congressional candidate, or a school whose policies would be changed by the election of a new mayor.
This will work because these stories bow to the same forces that have forced editors to concentrate on the presidential election for eight months. The foremost of these factors is attention span. The time an internet user will spend absorbing a piece of content on a page has been in constant decline since the beginning of dynamic web pages. Internet users in 2012 now have an average attention span of about 8 seconds, according to a study done at the University of Hamburg (Weinreich, et al). The reader decides whether or not they will read the piece in about two seconds, based on headline keywords, multimedia, and page layout.
In short, you don’t have time to educate the reader about a new issue. The editor has to engage a reader with a story that they are already invested in, like a presidential race. The alternative is to write and Op-Ed or a human interest story with an immediate appeal to controversy or emotional engagement, normally triggering feelings of outrage, inspiration, or empathy. Op-Eds, however, still face the investment problem, because nobody is interested in reading an opinion on a problem they don’t care about. Only human interest can deliver a similar feeling of entertainment and emotion while delivering information about an entirely new subject.
The one-story election is also compounded by social media. The public as a whole is discussing stories in real time, and readers are often directed to the news from their social media feeds. The public therefore wants to be educated on issues that their friends are talking about, one tab over, and be armed with facts and anecdotes that they can contribute to the conversations. It is difficult to get a national conversation going about a local congressional election, for example, which cannot be discussed with facebook friends from a different district, and whose outcome has more complicated implications for district constituents.
Finally, readers are no longer loyal to publications. While a few super-elite sources like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times can count on users returning to them for their news, all editors live in constant fear of their competitors, who are only one click away. Nobody wants to make a reader work, or give them less than exactly what they’re looking for, because they’ll lose them in eight seconds or less. Brand names are only so strong. In the end, the reader is the sole decider of what they want to read and learn about, and it has become the media’s job to provide that to them.
The problem is that readers are notoriously bad at introducing themselves to new issues. They have to be forced into the election cycle by public interest, which is mostly powered by the trio of outrage, empathy, or inspiration.
Newspapers and magazines should develop teams that specialize in writing short human interest stories that can introduce readers to new issues. This will give new avenues for editors to introduce readers to issues, and for local papers to continue addressing stories in their community, even when competing for a national audience. Editors will be able to overcome the problem of story familiarity by firing powerful emotional hooks, writing stories about characters or communities rather than issues. One example might be this story in the Huffington Post, which talks about the fashion statements of Senator McCaskill’s daughters on stage at a rally. The article had nothing to do with politics, but the young people who read it because they were interested in a cardigan learned why this congressional race was so important, and how it would affect the senate. Senator McCaskill of Missouri ended up being re-elected in one of the hardest fought congressional races in the country.
We are, of course, treading on dangerous ground. Human interest are notorious for editorial slant, and its use as a news tool is limited- one can hardly find out the whole story about GMO labeling if the article is about a farmer who would not be able to survive without GMO crops. It will, however, serve to introduce readers to the fact that the disaster happened, and give them an emotional handle that they want to share with their friends. It is more important for readers to be baseline aware of the issues in elections than to eschew for concerns of objectivity. Editors would still have the power to veto stories that are too slanted, and to reshape stories to tone down bias.
The most important thing is to get a reader interested in a topic so they can follow up on it and learn more from other sources. Bias is fine if it persuades a reader to look deeper into some hard facts, get other opinions, or forces the story into the cycle of the hard-news media. It’s also worth pointing out that human interest is considerably less slanted than the pure opinion of op-ed, which makes up much of the content on the blogosphere.
I’m not suggesting that all journalism go this way. I am a huge proponent of non-biased rigorous media. But the way that the public consumes content today mandates that the reader be familiar with a story or that the story immediately pull an emotional trigger. Major papers can use their blogging platforms to generate enormous amounts of human interest content for comparatively little cost, and it will give them tremendous power to expand the scope of issues the public is thinking about. These short stories- powered by emotion—will be able to educate an electorate on some of the broader problems it will be voting on.