In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.
Do you know what was most frustrating to me about the election last week? Trying to track real-time results for the ballot questions on same-sex marriage in four states.
Maine, Maryland, and Washington all asked voters if gays and lesbians should have marriage equality in their states. In all three, voters said yes. In Minnesota, voters were asked if their state constitution should be amended to limit marriage to a man and a woman. There, voters said no.
These outcomes were unprecedented. Previously, 30 different ballot questions put to voters in different states (including the notorious Proposition 8 in California) resulted in the denial or the revocation of equal marriage. Some journalists and activists have speculated that these wins were crucial — not only because the number of gay marriage states rose from six to nine (plus Washington, DC), but also because they signal to the Supreme Court that the Justices would not be running ahead of public opinion if they declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
Yet on election night, when I had assured WNYC’s It’s A Free Country blog that I would tweet for them about the ballot measures and their outcomes, I had a tough time finding information quickly on these historic votes that seemed trustworthy to me.
I couldn’t believe it. Yes, many ballot measures are important only to those who reside in the state. And there was other news important to gay people that I knew I would need to hunt for, like the retention of Iowa Supreme Court justice David Wiggins, who was part of a ruling bringing marriage to that state. But when gay marriage is enacted legislatively or through the courts system—in any state—the media is all over it. Last Tuesday, three states—three!—got gay marriage all at the same time. Where was the live coverage?
To check my own impression, I took an informal, very non-Nate Silver poll of my networks on Twitter, Facebook, and the journalist listservs I subscribe to. I asked two things: 1. If people were trying to follow the gay marriage races, where did they go for information, and did they find those places useful? and 2. If people weren’t following those races, were they still aware that they were happening? Which outlets clued them in?
This was not a surprise to me. That’s where I found information, too—primarily Twitter. However, a few people noted that their local public radio affiliate, even if they weren’t in one of the four voting states, did an outstanding job of keeping tabs on the gay marriage ballot inititatives, and two people mentioned that the Washington Post had frequent updates, particularly on Maryland.
The answer to the second question was basically: If I wasn’t listening to public radio, I didn’t know it was happening until the next day, when I saw the news on Facebook. A couple people said they heard updates on MSNBC from Rachel Maddow or on CNN but not details of why it was important or what it meant; several more said that they were watching those channels, but news of the initiatives didn’t register at all.
This will not do. For two reasons.
First, it is not okay for Twitter to be the main source of information for something as important as gay marriage battles in four states. Twitter, as we all know, is often wrong. Even when journalists are tweeting, they can do so impulsively, passing on incorrect information that they would never let into a story without double checking it. Twitter is not a reliable source, and it is a shame that people had to resort to relying on it on these issues because they felt like updated information wasn’t otherwise available.
Second, people should not have to know that an issue is important in advance in order to keep track of it on election night. One of the primary jobs of journalism is to bring critical issues to the attention of media consumers and to explain why they should care. People I queried — who are smart, regular consumers of news — were embarrassed that they didn’t know those races were happening. But it wasn’t their fault. It was the fault of election night coverage.
I know that elections, and Presidential elections in particular, are a heroic media undertaking. There is breaking news every half hour or so once results start coming in, and organizations need to cover all 50 states. I know it is likely not laziness, but rather lack of staff, that leads to the underreporting of something like these gay marriage ballot races.
But something must be done. The system must be re-evaluated. I was watching MSNBC, and there was a lot of fluff between the race calls—surely the gay marriage news could have been squeezed in more prominently there, or in a ticker. Public radio managed, after all, and they don’t have the ability to offer more than one piece of information on the air at once.
And though I appreciated that both the Times and CNN.com kept track of the ballot initiatives if you knew where to look (in the case of the Times, you had to know which states were voting on measures that were important to you), I’d have been happier if they had followed the Washington Post model, with frequent, more prominent updates.
Gay marriage is a big issue in this country—as are other social issues that were on the ballots, like banning the death penalty (California), limiting Obamacare (Florida, Wyoming, Montana) and ending public funds for abortion (Florida). Ballot measures not only lead to significant changes to people’s lives in their own states, but also influence the national conversation for good or ill. There must be a way to include information about what these issues are and why they matter in coverage on Election Day—when most people are paying attention—not just in the days leading up to or following an election. Especially during a Presidential election, when there are so many more media consumers.
There must be a better way to cover other important news like ballot measures on election night. We have four years to figure it out.