Political journalists are doing voter interviews all wrong

The seemingly endless series of New York Times reporters interviewing Trump supporters at diners across Red America – and discovering that against all odds they still support Trump – has given the voter-interview format a bad name.

But interviewing voters is a foundational part of campaign coverage.

So much political punditry presupposes how voters feel about one thing or another. Actually talking to them can be a reality check.

But how reporters go about it, where they go, who they talk to, what they presuppose, and most importantly what questions they ask, can make the difference between the stuff of parody and the best kind of political journalism.

The key is for reporters to explore not just voters’ political opinions, but their formative moments and their value systems. That’s particularly essential now because the prevalence and significance of intolerance — racism in particular – as a driving force in politics has not been sufficiently explored and discussed.

Voter interviews, at their best, can give voice to the voiceless, propound common sense, and tease out nuances missed by the polls, and even establish common ground.

At their worst, they can impose false balance, reflect preconceived notions, promote knee-jerk reactions, and stoke conflict.

The holy grail this time around has got to be determining what, if anything, actually changes voters’ minds – specifically, are there any recreateable ways that get people who have opted out of reality to opt back in?

Complicating the Narratives

The Solutions Journalism Network (@soljourno) works with journalists to help them “cover what’s missing in today’s news: how people are responding to problems.” A June 2018 report commissioned by the network called Complicating the Narratives, written by Amanda Ripley (@amandaripley), offers a compelling alternative to how most journalists these days cover conflict.

Though not directly aimed at political journalists, a lot of it applies to voter interviews. In particular Ripley distills a lot of valuable advice from Sandra McCulloch, a former journalist turned mediator. Ripley writes:

If any of us want to understand what’s underneath someone’s political rage, we need to follow stories to [their] moral roots — just like mediators. “People tend to keep describing their stories in the same way,” McCulloch says. “In mediation, you try to flip that over and say, ‘How did you come to that? Why is this story important to you? How do you feel when you tell it to me?’” Those questions may seem touchy feely, but it’s surprising how rarely people get asked them. “You see people kind of blink and go, ‘I never thought of it that way.’”

These kinds of questions reveal deeper motivations, beyond the immediate conflict. Sometimes, the entire conflict disappears when this happens — because people suddenly realize they agree on what matters most. More often, the questions reveal that the dispute is about something other than what everyone thought.

And Ripley offers up some specific questions that McCulloch and other mediators recommended:

  • What is oversimplified about this issue?
  • How has this conflict affected your life?
  • What do you think the other side wants?
  • What’s the question nobody is asking?
  • What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side in order to understand them better?

There is nothing remotely scientific about voter interviews. As Hamilton Nolan (@hamiltonnolan) wrote in September 2019 for (the dearly departed) Splinter:

What journalistic value do quotes from random citizens provide in the context of political stories? None at all.

How do you get an accurate or even semi-accurate idea of the tendencies and preferences and trends of a group of 130 million people? There is one way: a poll.

Furthermore, if reporters have a preconceived notion of what their story will be before they even start —  and seek out people who will provide the quotes they want – they are in fact the opposite of random.

So one way to earn trust and make these stories more valuable would be for reporters to be more transparent about who they chose to interview, how they found them, and who they chose to quote.

Making a Mockery of the Format

As early as May 2017,  Eric Boehlert (@EricBoehlertwas writing for Media Matters:

At this point, if you’re a Donald Trump supporter — and especially if you’re one from a mostly white town inside a red state — and a Beltway reporter hasn’t interviewed you as part of a Trump supporter update story, you need to get out more often.

A platoon of reporters continues to fan out to Trump strongholds, eagerly collecting quotes (“I think he’s doing a great job”) from people who voted for Trump and who want to confirm how much they still support him. (“Hitting it out of the ballpark.”) It’s a bizarre press phenomenon that has no precedent in modern history.

It has been unremitting ever since. Paul Waldman, an opinion writer for the Washington Post, joked at the Times’s expense in July 2019:

And the stories turn out to regularly feature ringers. In one New York Times story by Jeremy W. Peters, the supposedly ordinary Republican woman in the lead anecdote turned out to be a board member of an ultra-conservative PAC.

In other words, the reporters supplement their brief diner visits by pulling out their Contacts list to find what they’re looking for.

Mike Skerrett wrote a parody for McSweeney’s headlined: “I Traveled to a Diner in Trump Country to Write Another Article on Whether the President’s Supporters Still Want to, Quote, ‘Smash My Libtard Face In’

What About Everyone Else?

As reporters continue to flock to Trump diners (or just call Trump supporters in their Contacts) a potent argument has emerged that a potentially “silent majority” of Americans is being ignored. “The anti-Trump vote is the single largest coalition in American politics,” Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) wrote in his New York Times opinion column in July.

Despite their influence, however, anti-Trump voters are practically invisible in recent mainstream political coverage. Instead, the focus is the president’s most fervent supporters, as it has been since 2015, when Trump came down his escalator and announced his campaign for the White House. This past week is a prime example.

Trump galvanized his supporters at the cost of energizing the opposition. But somehow, this has fallen out of political memory, with many observers focused on the president’s base of non-college-educated whites as the only voters who matter.

Not long after Bouie’s column, I posed this question on Twitter:

I eventually found one.

I’m still looking for best practices.

One promising sign is the Nationscape project, from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, which will conduct more than 500,000 interviews over 16 months, and which intends to sheds light “on attitudes and issues as they take shape.”

It promises “in-depth insights into subgroups of Americans, including those often missed in traditional polling” and “rich stories about perspectives distinct to municipalities and geographies like rural and urban, coastal and interior.”


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