Media and Elections: The Return of the Citizen Voter
By Bill Payne, University of Minnesota, Duluth
In 2004, I traveled America making a documentary about why only half of Americans who are eligible to vote choose to do so. At the time, I was a 44 year-old liberal. Zack Swanson, a 24 year-old conservative, traveled with me as co-producer and videographer. We went to 22 states and interviewed about 300 people on camera. The result was the documentary 50/50: The American Divide.
I learned a lot. The most profound insight I gained was how complex individual voters are. We approached many people on the street, describing our documentary and telling the subject that we were from different sides of the political spectrum. We engaged people in conversation about why they vote or don’t vote, how they perceived media coverage of politics, and what they felt needed to change about the electoral process to get more people involved.
The Americans we interviewed were complex and difficult to characterize using the simplistic labels we see so often in the media or polls. Liberals espoused conservative views. Conservatives expressed liberal views. And almost everyone was disgusted with the influence of money on elections and the way the media reported the process.
I had made a commitment during the shooting of the documentary to study the media and how it was reporting the election. What Zack and I experienced in person was far different than what we saw being reported on television, in print media, and on talk radio. American voters, and the politicians that vie to represent their views, cannot be fairly represented in 30-second sound bites.
What really matters in an election is representation. An individual must decide which candidate will best represent them when the governing body begins to address the legislative issues before us. Each citizen must develop a political perspective. They must gather the information they need to determine which candidate will represent their perspective most often. In 1776, Americans declared:
“….governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
The electoral process is designed to continually “institute new government”. Information gathering is crucial to this ongoing reinvention. Without information that has integrity, we cannot make good decisions. The media, which acts as the largest and most pervasive conduit of information, is not driven by what will most likely result in our “collective safety and happiness”. It is driven by economic and political self-interest.
We the people cannot allow the media to be the only way the story of the next election will be told. They will begin to frame the story of the 2012 election November 3rd of this year. It will not be a true representation of who we are, what we want or need, or how we see the issues. It will perpetuate the consumer politics that have infantilized us.
My experience making 50/50 taught me to engage with people who disagreed with me. If we all try to do this, the conversation that ensues may help us create government in a way that will allow us to move forward as we are able. This act of reaching across political difference, coupled with other initiatives sure to arise from the many citizens that will become involved in this movement, can bring the responsibility of governance back into the hands of “We The People”.