Interview a hundred random people about most any random topic and you’re likely to get some nutty replies. If the topic’s politics, ignorance most likely becomes a common theme.
But, what as a reporter, do you with the absurdity that may arise?
Ignore it, is one option. Simply go with “reasonable” quotes, file your story, and save the crazy talk for late night banter with friends and colleagues.
Or report it and risk being called out for cherry picking absurdities that make people — and the positions they take — look bad.
Slate political reporter Dave Weigel thinks there’s space and place to report the crazy. He’s back from covering the Republican primaries in the south and writes:
Voters aren’t saints. When primaries get to certain parts of the country, they get disturbing, fast. In 2008, anybody with a digital camera could interview white Democrats who feared Barack Obama for the wrong reasons…
What are you supposed to do with quotes like that? Well, why not report them? There’s a big difference between these random voter interviews and “nutpicking,” when only the craziest, most bigoted clowns at some event are photographed and quoted.
Then there’s the question of whether reporters should try to correct the erroneous facts of those they’re interviewing while interviewing them.
In Weigel’s mind, don’t bother. People’s psychology has a way of creating narratives that reinforce belief systems even if pesky facts get in the way. Besides, studies show that repetition of smears, rumors and lies reinforce people’s belief in them even when they’re being debunked.
Most voter ignorance, if it was cured by logic and reason and long sessions of NPR, would be replaced by the same voter preferences, justified in different ways. There are Mississippi Republicans who hate Obama because they think he’s a Muslim. Take that away, and they’ll hate him because they’re conservatives and he isn’t. Only 11 percent of Mississippi whites voted for Barack Obama, but only 14 percent voted for John Kerry. These aren’t people who’ll change their minds if they fully grokked the president’s bio.
That is why ignorant voters don’t get to swing a presidential election. The conservative who rules out all new information, who has “silo’ed” himself with talk radio news, has a party he can vote for reliably. The Bill Maher TiVo-er has a party he can vote for, too. Voter ignorance, like a cold, can be controlled without being cured. There’s no shame, no journalistic crime, in finding the ignorance and pointing it out.
Dave Weigel, Slate. Stupid Voters Are People, Too: And the journalists who report on them don’t need to apologize for it.