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Reporters must get a feel for diverse sets of voters

DISCUSSIONS | May 24, 2006

Dori Maynard

1993 Nieman fellow; president of the Robert Maynard Institute for Journalism Education  

We need to get away from relying on polls and focus groups and get back to walking in neighborhoods throughout this country, talking to people across the fault lines of race, class, gender, generation and geography. Journalists need to make sure they are talking with a diverse group of people: the shop clerk, the cab driver, the admitting nurse at the doctor’s office. Use these conversations to help make sense of the polls and focus groups. Don’t use the polls and the focus groups to help make sense of our fellow citizens.

Despite a smattering of stories that said otherwise, the accepted narrative going into the 1998 midterm elections was that the country was so outraged with President Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior that voters were going to take it out on the Democrats.

It was true that there were those who were angry enough with Clinton to vote against any Democrat. However, there were many places outside the Beltway, and not just in California, where people didn't believe one man’s personal indiscretion should be cause for a political rebellion.

Many working class and middle class people remembered the recession under the previous administration and were enjoying a sense of prosperity, and they didn't want to chastise Clinton. Many people of color continued to support Clinton despite the scandal. The result: The Democrats did just fine and the media took another hit to our credibility because we spent too much time talking to the usual suspects and not enough time talking to people outside our easy comfort zone. A few honest conversations across the fault lines of race, class and geography might have helped us understand the forces that were shaping that election.

I remember on the Sunday after that election one of the talking heads said he had read stories saying people of color still supported the president, but he thought they were lying to the pollsters. Huh? It didn’t fit his narrative, so the interview subjects had to have been making stuff up to confuse us all. Perhaps if this talking head had been out reporting he would have understood that it was his story line that was questionable – not the original quote.

More recently, many of us woke up Nov. 3, 2004, shocked at the role that religion played in re-electing President George Bush. Given the strength of religion across the country and across ethnic and racial lines, that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

My concern is that the same thing could so easily happen again today. Will a faulty narrative emerge or a movement be missed simply because we fail to get out and talk to all the people who make up our increasingly diverse society?

The good news is that it is easy to avoid making that mistake. We should never spend more than 20 percent of our time talking to people who look, think and act in ways that are overly familiar to us. We should make sure we seek out a broad representation of the diverse groups. For example, don’t paint men with a broad brush. What do white men think? What do Asian men think? What do African American men think? What do young men think?

We need to remember that we all have blind spots. If something doesn’t make sense, don’t assume the person you’re interviewing is lying or doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. Instead, strip away your preconceived notions and try to figure out why the person thinks that way. That will go a long way toward helping to ensure that we accurately reflect the undercurrents driving this upcoming election.

This item is one of several responses to a survey of former Nieman fellows. Click here to see the main story.

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