Now that all fifty states have held their midterm primaries (minus Louisiana, with an October 2 Republican house candidate runoff), we can expect election-related news and advertising to spike in the weeks leading up to the November general election. By last month, candidates spent $395 million on ads, an increase of $109 million since the same point in the 2006 midterms. Issues like health care reform, immigration reform, gay marriage, financial regulation, education, tax cuts and a weak economy, plus polling reports like 52% of voters saying their political views align more with Sarah Palin’s than with those of President Obama, are sure to make these next few weeks interesting.
One response to this media torrent might be to turtle up, ignore it all and not vote, rather than sort through an overwhelming number of sound bites, photo opportunities, campaign slogans, debates, accusations and, if history is any indicator, more than a couple of scandals. However, although the storm of conflicting media may seem like a convenient excuse to stay home on election day, it is not. The LAMP is a nonpartisan organization, but a big part of media literacy is civic engagement and demanding more accountability from our leaders and media. We believe not only that every eligible voter should cast a ballot, but also that voters should make informed decisions rather than parrot the ideals of whoever happens to be making the most noise. And, you have to do more than visit a candidate’s website; it is not gospel. Fortunately, it is possible to thrive in a confusing world of political media, all with the confidence that you alone–and not mainstream media–have made your choice in voting. Our LAMPlit resource guide “Check Out the News!” by Education Director Katherine Fry is a great place to start, but here are a few more things to keep in mind as you engage specifically with political campaign messages in the weeks leading up to November 2.
1. Find out who paid for the message. Whether it’s a TV commercial, robo call or yard sign, some person or group had to plunk down the coins for a campaign message to reach you, and they almost certainly influenced that message. In most cases, you’ll see or hear something like, “This message is paid for by Friends of (insert candidate name here)” but you should take at least a bit of time to find out who those friends are. Especially since last January’s ruling by the Supreme Court which overturned campaign spending limits by corporations, it is important to find out whose interests are being represented, and how that may impact policy decisions. If someone gets a lot of money from a particular industry, he or she might not want to alienate that donor group, and so would probably vote against taxes and regulations on that industry. One great resource for learning more about who is funding a particular campaign, visit OpenSecrets.org. You might be surprised at how little time it can take to find out who gave how much money to whom, learn about PAC and advocacy group activity and much more.
2. Decide what issues are the most important to you. This strategy is not so much related to media literacy as it is helpful for sifting through the noise to get to what really impacts your voting decision. Try picking 3-5 things that you care about, and prioritize looking deeper into the media messages about those issues as you decide what’s right for you in casting your vote. Every candidate has a website; take a look and see what they have to say about the issues. This is not to say that it isn’t important to learn as much as you can about a candidate, but back in 2006, over $1.8 million was spent on television ads alone. That’s a good deal of airtime, but you don’t have to scrutinize every second of it in your quest to be an informed voter.
3. Get the context. The most recent example of why you should do this is the Shirley Sherrod debacle. If you hear a sound bite of a candidate saying “no new taxes” and taxes are important to you, find out more about when and why the candidate said that. For all you know, the complete sentence could have been, “I plan to raise taxes on small businesses, but there will be no new taxes on big tobacco.” Information like that can make a big difference. One way to get context for a sound bite or other statement is to look at a few different news sources, and read how different journalists report the incident. Especially in politics, there is hardly anything too small to be deemed unworthy of a blog post.
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