Media Analysis: Mail, Confusion, and the 2020 Election
by Nate Wolf
by Nate Wolf
Absentee voting has been the subject of intense news coverage this year. Media outlets and public officials alike have engaged in a frantic effort to ensure widespread mail-in voting will work in the lead-up to the November election, and that the American public understands the process. In a late August poll conducted by Ipsos, 88% of respondents said they understood the rules for voting in their state well, but when it came time to answer basic questions about the absentee voting process, very few actually understood the rules. To understand this disconnect between a dogged and thorough media corps and their readers and viewers, we took a look at the data.
News Without Context
We don’t need much data to remember just how quickly mail-in voting began to dominate the airwaves. President Trump occasionally tweeted about it during the summer, but momentum really picked up in August. On the 17th, the New York Times reported on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s eyebrow-raising financial ties. Just a week later, DeJoy testified in front of Congress about how postal changes might negatively impact the election.
The deluge of coverage isn’t a bad thing; healthy democracy requires robust journalism. But as disinformation spreads across the internet, and Democrats and Republicans spar over the efficacy of absentee voting, the media seems to have realized that some basic information on voting procedures has been absent from the conversation.
After an initial flurry of reporting and thinkpiece-ing that left so many people aware, but not necessarily informed, the media seems to be course-correcting. Top-tier national outlets like the New York Times, NPR, and CNN have all recently published articles that simply answer the question, “How do I vote in a pandemic?”
These articles are a welcome sight. They’ve been published at the exact right time; any earlier and they may have been less relevant, any later and some readers wouldn’t have voted before their state’s deadline.
News outlets have also been inconsistent with their language. In the past, “absentee voting” was the primary choice for reporters and analysts alike, with “mail-in voting” or “vote by mail” sometimes used as a stand-in. Here’s Trendkite’s share of voice comparison for October 2017 through September 2018 leading up to the last midterm elections:
And here’s the past year:
Notice anything? The language preferences have flipped almost entirely. Part of this is purposeful—many states have pondered or enacted changes to their electoral procedures due to COVID-19. But, as some publications have actually had to acknowledge, the difference between “absentee voting” and “mail-in voting” is mostly semantics.
Lessons for Communicators
Communicators can, and should, help out our reporter friends. Public relations professionals—especially those working in Washington, D.C.—are pitching journalists, preparing news clips, and drafting digital content all day. That addiction to news even bleeds into our daily lives; last week, I spent an average of 42 minutes per day scrolling through Twitter on my phone. Yikes!
A good communicator understands that the vast majority of people do not interact with the news for a living. We’ve heard from reporters on beats ranging from real estate to tech that going back to basics is critical amid a complex pandemic. Whether the issue is voting, police accountability, healthcare, or something else entirely, we as media professionals should ask whether our pitch angles clarify an issue or add confusion to it.
We should train our spokespeople and subject matter experts to prioritize being helpful resources for reporters over making a splash in the news. That means not speaking to reporters as though their readers or listeners reside in the same niche Twitterverse. The same goes for direct outreach. We can help correct seemingly minor semantic mistakes by always using precise language in our newsletters and social content.
At the end of the day, if we’re accurate, honest, and proactive with our communications, we can make the news more informative for our intended audiences—in this case, anyone voting by mail this fall.
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