When the elections bill became law, much of the national media—especially left-leaning outlets, but also mainstream newspapers—grabbed the story quickly, but initial coverage in North Carolina was more scattershot. John Frank of The News & Observer made this observation a day after McCrory signed the law.
National news outlets jumped on the North Carolina bill signing. The Atlantic, Washington Post and the wire services all had their own stories. In North Carolina, the news didn’t land with a universal splash. The News & Observer, Charlotte Observer, Asheville Citizen-Times and Wilmington Star-News ran it on the front-page. But newspapers in Fayetteville, Greensboro, Burlington, Gaston and elsewhere didn’t give it prominent treatment.
The Gaston Gazette did publish a prominent front-page report two days later, and in the following weeks North Carolina devoted more space and attention to the issue. But Robinson likens the in-state media’s reaction to the voting laws changes to the old, apocryphal story about a frog complacently boiling in a slowly-warming pot.
“We in North Carolina have seen this coming ever since the Legislature has been at work,” Robinson told me. “We’ve been in the water as it has gotten hotter and hotter. Outside the state, media organizations have just seen the boiling water and, of course, leaped.”
In some cases, like this column in the tiny Mt. Airy News, critical attention from the national media was actually the news hook for a discussion of what was happening in the state.
I reached out to Kirk Ross, editor of The Carolina Mercury and a journalist who has reported on the legislature for multiple other outlets, to ask about the different approaches of national and in-state media. He pointed to the historical context surrounding a provision of the new law that broadens the ability for one state resident to challenge another person’s vote.
“Voter intimidation is a real worry and has a huge and evil history in the South,” Ross said. “It’s real. I think the MSNBC folks got that, but I’m not sure who else did.”
On voter fraud—like everything else—facts trump ‘he said, she said’
In McCrory’s video defense of the elections bill, he says the law is aimed at “ensuring that no one’s vote is disenfranchised by a fraudulent ballot.”
I’ve argued before in CJR about the need for clarifying coverage on the topic of voter fraud—for reporting that steers clear of the he-said, she-said pitfall, and for journalists to avoid attributing something that can be stated as fact.
In covering the North Carolina law, reporting like this from The News & Observer could be better:
Advocates of voter ID laws claim such measures are needed to make sure people voting are who they say they are and have the right to vote.
But critics have highlighted the limited number of voter fraud cases across the country. Instead, they describe the ID laws and other elections revisions as attempts to squelch a young voting bloc.
It’s true, critics have pointed to the limited number of voter fraud cases. But those numbers are also facts that can be stated as such in the reporter’s own voice. Instead of quoting unnamed “critics” or partisan sources, reporters would do better to cite data from the state elections board or independent databases, or quote reliable independent voices like
NYU’sUC-Irvine’s Rick Hasen, author of The Voting Wars.
Some of the coverage, in-state and out, has gotten this right. Here’s how NPR’s Ailsa Chang handled this point when reporting on the North Carolina law:
A lot of residents are applauding this new rule requiring picture IDs, such as Mac Lawrence. He’s supervising big machines cropping leaves in his tobacco field.
“I think there’s a lot of folks voting in more than one place. If you can’t prove who you are, then you ought not be able to vote,” Lawrence says.
Actually, evidence of voter fraud in North Carolina is pretty minimal. The State Board of Elections has reported only two cases of voter impersonation fraud in the past 10 years.
(Here’s a thought: maybe the reason Lawrence thinks “a lot of folks” are committing in-person voter fraud is because he keeps hearing elected leaders say it’s the reason the state needs new laws.)