Monthly Archives: April 2012

Fact checking, words, images and stories

Charlotte has a starring role in a new video from Mitt Romney, focusing on jobs and unemployment. And that’s good: Voters have consistently said through polls and other venues that the economy is the most important issue for many of them this election season.

Here’s what’s interesting:

Media outlets and civic organizations have ramped up more fact checking this year of candidate’s claims, because in politics, spin and distortion are often the name of the persuasive game.

Online social sharing and the reach of Youtube make videos incredibly powerful, with views for that one video growing from 300 or so on April 18, (the day Romney visited Charlotte) to 6,000 or so on April 19 and 40,000 or so on April 20. (I’m not linking here, on purpose, to avoid becoming part of something I might measure for class work.)

The facts of jobs and unemployment in the video are fairly indisputable, though not the full story, as detailed by Kirsten Valle Pittman of the Charlotte Observer in an excellent fact check box on April 19. But the questions about how we measure economic health, jobs and unemployment are nuanced and difficult to explain in visuals, short headlines and blurbs. In explaining those nuances with words and narrative, the visceral emotions of the ad get lost. And the ad’s accuracy becomes difficult to question because it sticks to facts in its few words.

But our economy and our jobs have changed dramatically, and our measurements don’t tell the full story. When we focus on measurable facts, as candidates, as journalists, as voters, we miss the nuance of change. Some have said we become what we measure, or we encourage what we measure, and some have even suggested alternative methods. Chip Conley, in a TED video,  has examined the question of whether we should measure things differently, playing off the Gross National Happiness factor. Certainly that idea would get laughed out of the political arena this year as falling into the spin and distortion category, not quantifiable (yet).

As graduation season approaches, the stories of a couple of college seniors at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte strike me as more telling about our current economic uncertainties and likely won’t show up in the unemployment data: One has an occasional job laying carpet, and that pays the bills. Freelance journalism on the side feeds the soul and the resume. Another senior has occasional freelance assignments, but the gas costs to produce the stories eat up any profit. He wants a job, any job, that pays enough to give him economic independence. (I was at the same spot, long ago, for a couple of months right out of college. I was waiting on President Reagan’s words of hope to trickle down. They did, somewhat, eventually.)

But back to the video ad: The shareable, visceral appeal of video political ads has long been about audio and visuals, with techniques like foreboding music, heart beats, grainy black and white images contrasted with vibrant color. This ad uses some of those techniques, and connects North Carolina viewers with a familiar landscape, drawing contrasts from ugly, empty loading docks to shiny, crisp uptown skyscrapers. That contrast will be easy to find in Charlotte and North Carolina, over and over in this campaign season, and existed long before the current economic downtown. But viscerally, it tells a story that goes beyond data.

Melanie Green has written about a concept called “transportation,” or feeling immersed in a narrative story, and how that immersion builds trust and positive feelings. The Romney ad visuals have the capacity to transport North Carolina people (and Florida people, in another ad) by showing them familiar sights, and thus perhaps building trust and liking.

So while reporters and others in the civic arena rightfully draw attention to “facts” that are measurable and verifiable, the growing reach of video and visual messages can strongly influence trust of candidates in this campaign year. Fact checking narratives can’t address those video techniques easily. Presentation of narrative, pointing to specific methods in video ads and even linking to specific timed spots in ads, can perhaps increase critical thinking about the ads. But as always, dry narrative has a tough battle against emotional, visceral images. Qualitative storytelling is as strong as ever, perhaps stronger with video’s growth online, and emphasis on facts has a role but cannot tell the full story.

Rex Hubbke of the Chicago Tribune says Fact has died. Journalists will strongly disagree, and my professors will still strongly encourage quantitative measurement. But we cannot deny the growing power of qualitative, visceral stories. In 1974, Eudora Welty wrote a short critical piece, “Is Phoenix Jackson’s Grandson Really Dead?” I’m mining the online libraries to try to find a copy, but I think her answer to readers inquiring about the facts in a story she had written was this: It didn’t matter. Phoenix believed her grandson was alive, and that’s what the story was about.

Belief matters, and story matters, and sometimes facts don’t. Regardless, we still need to check those facts, and perhaps we can find more persuasive ways to encourage others to do so too.

 

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