If you believe Claude Pope, the chairman of the state Republican Party, the Moral Monday protesters have gone too far using inflammatory rhetoric and veering away from a serious discussion of the issues. And the news media is not calling them out on it.
“I think what you need to understand is Republicans feel like the media has not been as responsible in highlighting the inflammatory nature of some of those attacks,” he told WRAL.
Pope might have been better served by keeping his concerns to himself because, despite the ongoing Moral Monday protests that have moved out of the capital and, in fact, moved to other days of the week, 39 percent of North Carolina residents say they haven’t even heard of the protest rallies.
That’s right. Four in 10 people said they were not familiar with Moral monday rallies, according to the Elon University Poll.
It gets worse. A High Point University Poll showed that 31 percent of respondents had heard “not much at all” about the dramatic changes in voting access approved this summer by the state legislature. And 41 percent said they had heard “a little bit.”
My bet is that if the pollsters had asked the news media in the state, the journalists would say that they had covered the state government’s activities well. And many have and still are. It’s just that they aren’t reaching millions of registered voters.
Welcome to the disconnect between journalism and citizens.
I have written many times here about the need for the news media to write with more thunder and lightening about the things happening in state government. Dramatic changes are afoot. If you believe, as I do, that the “purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing” then that 39 percent Moral Monday figure is troubling. The 72 percent who had heard just a little or nothing about the voting changes? That should send a chill up the spines of journalists and everyone else who wants citizens to be informed about the things state officials do in their name.
I have spent many pixels outlining what I think news organizations should do. Let’s approach it differently.
What responsibility do news organizations have for citizens’ lack of awareness of important state issues ? (And I’m not even asking about knowledge of the issues.)
Let’s go ahead and knock the first response out of the way. True, the people have a responsibility to get themselves informed. True, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. True, you can’t make people eat their broccoli, if all they want is cake. True, true, true.
Now, what are we going to do about it? Can we make our reporting more interesting? Can we make it more human, more vital, more relevant? Can we publish stories in different places and in different ways? Can we editorialize with more fire and can we publish those traditional “back-page items” on the front page so that they will get noticed? Can TV news, with that vast hole of time to fill throughout the day devote some of it to stimulating opinion? Can we deliver the news and information to people more conveniently on their phones? Can we involve citizens in the news process more directly? Can we connect them with the government leaders through forums and meetings? Can we make their needs and interests more directly known to the politicians? Can we create digitally interactive pages and exercises and games and quizzes that will draw people in? Can we localize the news out of Raleigh so that even the voters in towns from Manteo to Murphy have a real connection to what the state is doing?
The answer to each of these questions is the same. Of course, we can. It’s when we ask, “will we?” that it gets dicey.
My answer is that we must. Newsrooms across the state need to struggle with these questions. It’s not only in their own self interest, but it is in the state’s best interest. If we do not, the number of disengaged citizens will continue to rise. More power will be in the hands of the few.
And, while it may seem melodramatic to say that the new media’s future depends upon it, it does.