Sunday, December 14, 2014

Student liked the course, but was disillusioned by his interviews with voters on Election Day

By Ben Tompkins
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Recently, students in a special journalism course covering Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race were staged at various precincts to interview voters about who earned their vote and what had shaped their decision. Prior to this course, I had no previous experience with political reporting, nor had I considered political reporting as a career. While our class has received paramount leadership from the co-instructors, Al Cross and Bill Goodman, conducting the interviews at the polls reinforced my stance that political reporting is not for me.

Let’s start from the beginning. The first half of the course was informative and there is no doubt in my mind that the excellent reporting skills that we’ve been taught from our instructors, and the A-list guest speakers they’ve hosted to speak to the class, have expanded upon my versatility as a journalist. Mike Ruehling, Scott Jennings, Sam Youngman and John David Dyche are among a handful of decorated professionals in their respective industries that have come and made our class smarter with each and every assertion made and question answered. The 26-plus years of experience and insight that Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, and Kentucky Educational Television’s Bill Goodman provide to the course is second to none.

Stories on immigration and other situation pieces, follow-up interviews from the Bluegrass Poll, debate stories, and advertisement analyses have pushed my limits and forced me to grow as a reporter. The work that we turned in prior to Election Day was the facet of political reporting that I enjoyed. Professor Cross told the class that it was stories such as our situation pieces that made the difference in educating voters. The story that I wrote on immigration was written to present both sides of the story, covering stances from both sides of the aisle.

Stories like that were aimed at allowing voters to read valuable and informative information so they’d be able to sift through the rhetoric and stretched truths dominated in political advertisements. We were making a difference through our reporting and through the hard work that Professor Cross and a few of the students put into keeping the public informed on our blog. Then came the post-election interviews.

Standing with my blue Papermate pen, yellow legal pad and iPhone 6 outside Meadowthrope Elementary in Lexington, interviewing random voters about whom they had voted for and why, it became clear that a startling number of citizens – startling to me, at least – had no idea why they voted the way they did or what had factored into their decision.

Jeremy Stilz, a 30-year-old Democrat, said he had voted for Alison Lundergan Grimes not because he agreed with what she stood for, but because she wasn’t Mitch McConnell.

“Not necessarily who, but who I was voting against. I more voted for her [Grimes] as a way to get him out – the lesser of two evils kind of thing. It’s time for a change, he’s [McConnell] he’s had far too many terms and I feel like if you’ve had that much time in office you have a lot of knowledge about how to – not necessarily corrupt but change things for yourself instead of the actual agenda that you should be there for.”

When I asked Stilz what issues he felt like McConnell had failed to deliver on, he was unable to give me an answer usable for the purposes of a quote or story. He began to blame the gridlock on McConnell but was unable to put in words what he was trying to express; he didn’t know what the gridlock was or what it meant whatsoever. I had to finish his sentence for him and clearly that’s not what a reporter should do – lead someone to making a decision or statement.

Another man, Frank Monroe, a 62-year-old engineer, went on a tangent about candidates and Washington as the machine. When asked why he voted for Grimes, Monroe replied, “The incumbency of Mitch McConnell. They sit on a stump and tell you ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that,’ until they get up there and become a part of the part of the machine. And you’re either a part of the machine or you throw a monkey wrench in the gears, but if you do that, you’re not going to last. That’s just how it is, everybody knows it.”

The cynical, poor taste that voter interviews post-election left in my mouth made me re-evaluate my enthusiasm for political reporting. I love presenting those around me with information that makes them think, grow and evolve – it’s why I’m working to become a journalist. However, hearing voters like Frank and Jeremy speak on what issues had shaped their decision (or the lack thereof), made me feel as if the work that I had completed in the previous months wasn’t as significant as I had thought.

I interviewed 10 voters on Election Day, certainly not a large enough number for a representative sample. It is not my contention that most people simply get in their car and drive to the polls without the slightest indication of who they like, but the people I interviewed had a difficult time explaining why.

Phyllis Ackerman, a 72-year-old Republican and retired administrative assistant, said she had voted for McConnell on every ballot but his first campaign. But when I asked what it was about McConnell that she liked, the only answer she could muster was his experience. She said that to her, McConnell was simply the best choice, but when pressed to explain, she was unable to express in words what exactly that meant.

While I realize that this experience isn’t representative of all voters, nor should this read as an indictment of them, the fact remains that a surprising number of citizens drive to the ballot box widely uneducated and complain months later when they are unhappy with the elected leadership. If there is one thing that I have no patience for, it is ignorance, and my experience with post-election voter interviews was exactly that – decisions made with no logical explanation of a how or a why.

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